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How much iron do I need?

Getting sufficient iron is critical for the development of normal red blood cells and for healthy immune function, and iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. However, food sources of iron are readily available, and many people take iron-containing dietary supplements as well, so it is possible for men and for non-menstruating women (postmenopausal, surgically menopausal, or women who don’t menstruate due to health conditions) to consume excess iron. Generally, men and non-menstruating women should receive about 10 mg of iron daily, menstruating or nursing women 15 mg, and pregnant women 30 mg daily. You can quickly learn how much iron you are consuming in your diet by using our Food Advisor.

Iron is one of the nutrients that the body cannot easily dispose of when intake is excessive, so excess iron is instead stored in vital organs and blood cells. Elevated iron levels have been linked to cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions like arthritis, and cancer, most likely because of iron’s propensity to oxidize (produce free radicals) in a liquid environment—just think of a rusty can. Incidentally, iron poisoning from excessive intake of iron-containing dietary supplements is common and sometimes fatal among children—please store these supplements safely out of children’s reach. For further information about iron, read our comprehensive discussion of Iron.

In food, iron is found in two main forms, heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is more easily absorbed into the body and is found in blood-containing animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish. Non-heme iron is found in iron-containing plant foods like molasses, leafy green vegetables, cocoa, and dried fruits. Please note that non-heme iron generally occurs in antioxidant-rich plant foods. Therefore non-heme food sources of iron are less likely to contribute to oxidant stress for two reasons—their iron is less likely to accumulate in the body since it is less easily absorbed, and the concurrent intake of food antioxidants should help prevent the oxidation of iron in the body as well as protect the body from oxidation. For a comprehensive listing of the iron content of foods, visit Iron - Food Sources. Here are some recipes to help you balance your iron intake with natural food antioxidants: Simmered Spinach and Black Bean Chili.

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