should you be taking an iron supplement?

Last week, one of my Facebook community members asked me if I thought she should begin taking an iron supplement, as her MyFitnessPal app had been showing (well, rather, alerting her in bright red notifications!) that she is getting only about a quarter of her daily iron needs.

I, myself, choose to keep meat in my diet for the purpose of getting iron, as I’ve found I’m very sensitive to low intake. However, before I get any further, if you *are* a vegetarian or vegan, you 100% can get most of what you need from your diet! If you're able to make it work and feel great, that's amazing! Keep doing you.

However, if you're anything like me and/or sensitive to low-iron levels, this quote from a client may resonate with you...

"Every time I have tried to eliminate red meat and chicken in my diet, I am so lethargic I can hardly stay awake."

If you've experienced low iron or anemia - you understand how this feels. 

So, let's talk a little more about this mineral.

What is iron?

  • It is an essential mineral that carries oxygen from our lungs and transports it throughout our organs/tissues.

Why do you feel tired AF when you don't get enough?

Our red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that needs iron to function at it's highest capacity. When our iron levels are normal, the hemoglobin in our red blood cells is almost 100% saturated with iron (which, by the way, is why when you see basketball players on the sideline breathing into an oxygen mask to "increase their hemoglobin saturation" is a ruse), and able to transport oxygen. 

We do have a backup supply of iron stored as a compound called Ferritin, and this breaks down to create available iron for our bodies when our intake from food is low. But if this continues for too long, and we don't have enough iron to support the amount we need in our red blood cells, we are unable to transport oxygen and thus, are unable to carry out basic muscular and metabolic functions. This is why you may feel lethargic and extremely tired. 

Where do you get it from your diet?

  • Heme iron (found in meat)

  • Non-heme iron (found mostly in plants: whole and enriched grain, legumes, seeds, nuts, fortified breakfast cereals, beans – kidney, lima, navy, black, pinto, and tofu)

Heme iron is the "active" form and thus, the recommended iron intake for vegetarians is 1.8 times greater, since it will need to go through an additional step in our bodies before it is available to use. 

What are the symptoms of deficiency?

  • Paleness

  • Difficulty breathing & fast heartbeat (because you body is trying to pump blood as fast as it can)

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Feeling cold (hands or feet)

If you have or are experiencing these symptoms after you've began to cut back on meat consumption, I suggest you have your iron levels checked. You don't want to begin supplementation unless you are deficient. 

If you are deficient and are taking a supplement, here are a few tips to make sure you get the most bang for your buck!

  • Calcium and antacids should not be taken at the same time as iron supplements, as they interfere with absorption. Aim to wait at least two hours after consuming these foods before taking any iron supplement.

  • Taking Vitamin C with with your iron supplement will support optimal absorption. This can be in the form of ascorbic acid in your capsule, or, for example, a citrus fruit paired with your meal!

  • You'll also want to avoid high fiber foods and caffeine within an hour or so of taking an iron supplement. 

As I mentioned previously, you don't want to take iron supplements if they aren't necessary, as iron will oxidize in your body (just like it rusts on your car!) if you have too much.

There are also different forms of iron available, and some may be better tolerated than others. Know that you don't have to suffer through the common complaint of constipation if you do choose to start taking one! 

Along with focusing on your intake of iron-rich foods, I encourage you to ask your primary care doctor when to have your blood reassessed to ensure healthy iron levels. 

Questions? Comments? Feel like you should start taking an iron supplement after reading this? Comment and let me know!