The Best Iron-Rich Foods That Can Help Fight Fatigue and Boost Energy

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When you think about getting enough of the minerals your body needs, your mind probably heads right to electrolytes like potassium, calcium, or magnesium. But there’s one you might be overlooking: iron.

And that can be a big problem, since lots of us are lacking that all-important mineral. About 30% of people under the age of 50 who menstruate are anemic, according to the World Health Organization—and one of the most common causes of it is not having enough iron. The good news, though, is that you can beef up (pun intended) your body’s stores by adding a few key ingredients to your diet. But before we get into the best iron-rich foods out there, let’s take a step back and look at why the mineral is so vital in the first place.

What does iron do for your body?

Iron isn’t just what you pump at the gym—it’s also a substance that your body can’t produce on its own that it needs for everyday life. It’s especially important for your blood, Jackie Powers, MD, MS, director of the Iron Disorders and Nutritional Anemias Program at Texas Children’s Hospital, tells SELF. In fact, 70% of the iron in your body is found in your red blood cells.

The mineral serves “as a building block for hemoglobin, which is a protein in our red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body,” Dr. Powers explains. With each inhale, hemoglobin passes through the lungs, picking up oxygen molecules and distributing them to the rest of your body, including your heart, brain, and extremities. When you have enough red blood cells doing their thing, your entire body will be better oxygenated, which can help you feel more alert and energized, and basically ensure everything is functioning properly.

What’s more, iron is essential for repairing damaged DNA, which is your body’s way of cleaning up cells that can lead to potentially harmful mutations and disease. It also plays a role in maintaining a healthy nervous system, Claire Murphy, MD, a hematopathologist at the College of American Pathologists, tells SELF. That’s because your body uses iron to produce neurotransmitters—chemicals that serve as your body’s communication system, constantly firing messages that allow you to do everything from breath to feel the superb fluffiness of your cat. Your body also needs the mineral to help make myelin, a protein that wraps protectively around nerve cells to help amplify all those signals.

How much iron do we need?

Iron recommendations vary depending on a few factors, Dr. Powers explains. These include your age, pregnancy, how active you are, other health conditions (like GI disorders or cancer), and if you’re menstruating. Likewise, if you’re a regular at the blood donation clinic, you’ll also need more iron in your diet.

The National Institutes of Health recommends 18 milligrams of iron per day for women between 18 and 50 years old, and 27 mg daily for pregnant people—that extra amount accounts for the increased blood volume from the fetus, Dr. Powers says. Breastfeeding adults only need 9 mg a day, since menstruation typically stops for months after birth, Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RDN and owner of Entirely Nourished, tells SELF.

Other populations also have lower iron requirements. “Men and women who don’t menstruate or are post-menopausal need eight milligrams per day,” Dr. Murphy says.

What happens if you aren’t getting enough iron?

If you’re not eating enough iron, you’re losing too much, or your body simply isn’t absorbing it well, your body won’t be able to make enough hemoglobin, and iron deficiency anemia can set in. At first, when the deficiency is mild, you might not really know anything’s wrong, but as it worsens, symptoms can set in.

Symptoms like fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and breathlessness are common, says Dr. Powers. Low iron leads to lower hemoglobin levels, which means there are fewer red blood cells to transport oxygen in your body. If your tissues don’t get the oxygen they need, it becomes harder for your body to do its job—everything from muscle contractions to brain function can be impaired. Your heart rate might increase to try to pump more oxygen to its depleted tissue, which can cause lightheadedness too.

Iron deficiency symptoms are all pretty nonspecific—a lot of things can cause similar signs—but there’s one that’s a real tell-tale: pica, or the craving to eat non-food items, says Dr. Powers. “Ice is one of the most common cravings that individuals with iron deficiency experience,” but she’s treated patients who crave “cornstarch, uncooked rice, tissue paper, and other crunchy items that mimic the mineral texture of iron.”

The only conclusive way to confirm iron deficiency anemia is with a blood test ordered by your doctor. For women, that means hemoglobin levels below 12 gm/dl for women and 13.5 gm/dl for men. If you’re in that range, your doc may order blood tests to rule out other nutritional deficiencies (which could indicate an issue with absorbing nutrients) or blood disorders, and may recommend a supplement to get your levels back up to snuff.

It’s important, though, to let that intel come from your doc, as you can overdo it if you pop too much on your own. Common side effects of higher-than-necessary iron intake include stomach pain, constipation, nausea, and vomiting. And taking in a super-high amount (we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of milligrams over a prolonged period) can cause organ and tissue damage. That’s why it’s best to look to your diet to up your iron, unless your doc advises otherwise, since it’s harder to go overboard.

What foods are the best sources of iron?

If you want to increase your iron intake without a supplement, it’s not hard to fill your plate with ferrous-rich foods, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or an omnivore.

Food contains two kinds of iron: heme, which only comes from animal sources (like shellfish, red meat, and organ meat—hello, liver!), and nonheme, which is found in produce like leafy green veggies, grains, and nuts. According to Dr. Powers, our bodies more readily absorb heme iron, so it’s even more important for vegetarians and vegans to choose iron-rich foods to make sure they’re getting enough of the mineral. Some foods, like cereals, are also fortified with iron to help you take in more of it.

Add these items to your shopping list to optimize your iron intake:

Fruits and Vegetables:

  • Cooked spinach (6.4 mg per cup)

  • Dried apricots (3.5 mg per cup)

  • Cooked beet greens (2.7 mg per cup)

  • Cooked green peas (2.5 mg per cup)

  • Cooked brussels sprouts (1.9 mg per cup)

  • Canned tomatoes (1.6 mg per ½ cup)

Grains and Cereals:

  • Fortified Corn Flakes (13.5 mg per cup)

  • Fortified Bran Flakes (9 mg per cup)

  • Old-fashioned oats (2.11 mg per cup)

Legumes:

  • Canned white beans (7.8 mg per cup)

  • Tofu (6.7 mg per 1/2 cup)

  • Cooked lentils (6.6 mg per cup)

  • Cooked chickpeas (4.8 mg per cup)

  • Frozen edamame (3.5 mg per cup)

  • Cooked pinto beans (3.4 mg per cup)

Nuts and Seeds:

  • Roasted pumpkin seeds (9.5 per cup)

  • Almonds (5.3 mg per cup)

  • Walnuts (3.4 mg per cup)

  • Hemp seeds (2.4 mg per 3 tablespoons)

Meat and Seafood:

  • Liver (15.2 mg per 3 oz)

  • Mussels (5.7 mg per 3 oz)

  • Oysters (4.9 mg per 6 raw farmed oysters)

  • Clams (2.4 per 3 oz)

  • Beef (2 mg per 3 oz)

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Originally Appeared on SELF