Anemia sounds like the kind of condition that rarely happens anymore, like scurvy or rickets. But actually, iron-deficiency is more common than you might think — especially among women. Being pregnant, breastfeeding, or just having a regular period (especially if it's heavy) all raise your risk for iron-deficiency. Luckily, if you plan it right, you can get all the iron you need straight from your meals.
Doing so is important to keep multiple systems in your body functioning properly. "Without iron, our cells wouldn't be able to carry oxygen to our muscles," says Kim Larson, RDN. "Even moderate anemia — not just extreme — can cause fatigue, decreased immunity, and even decreased cognitive functioning."
Everyone needs iron, but exactly how much you need depends on other aspects of your life. Vegetarians will be especially pleased to know that there are plenty of plant-based iron sources out there because they'll need about twice as much of the stuff as meat eaters, says Larson. Also, distance runners may need up to 30% more iron than the average person, she explains.
In some cases, taking the birth control pill may instead reduce your need for iron since it can make your periods lighter. (On the other hand, if you have a copper IUD, you might need more iron, as that BC method can make periods heavier in some women.)
Complicating things further is that our bodies absorb iron differently depending on the source. We more readily take up those meat-based, or "heme" sources of iron. However, some plant-based "non-heme" sources contain other compounds that might make it harder or easier for us to absorb that iron. For instance, the soy in tofu may actually enhance iron absorption.
To get the right amount, then, Larson suggests eating a meat and plant source of iron together — the heme source will make it easier for the body to soak up the iron from the non-heme. Or if you're sticking just with plant-based sources, adding a vitamin C-rich food will also help you absorb more of the iron.
Click through to see a few of the best sources of iron out there. And stay tuned — we'll be updating this article every month with a new iron-rich food to incorporate into your life.