What You Need to Know About Iron
Iron is an essential mineral that’s found in every cell in your body. Considered an ‘enabler’, iron:
- Helps build red blood cells
- Supports cell functions
- Carries oxygen from your lungs to every cell in your body
When your body has sufficient iron, you tend to feel better and look better, have more energy and find it easier to concentrate. You can also donate blood more regularly.
How Much Iron Do I Need?
The amount of iron you require depends on your age, gender, body type and diet. Women require more iron than men, but tend to consume less in their daily diets. Vegetarians, regardless of gender, often consume less iron. Frequent blood donors have particularly high iron needs.
How Is Iron Measured?
Your body’s iron reserves can be estimated by measuring ferritin levels. This is done by a doctor, and is not part of what Canadian Blood Services measures when you donate. Our ‘fingerstick test’ measures hemoglobin, not iron. These are two different things. For more information on hemoglobin, see All About Hemoglobin on this site. Your fingerstick hemoglobin test may be normal even if your iron reserves are low. If you are a frequent blood donor, discuss measuring your iron reserves with your doctor.
How Do I Know If I'm Getting Enough Iron?
Iron comes in two forms:
- Heme iron, which is absorbed easily by the body. Foods with heme iron include beef, lamb, pork, liver, veal, chicken, turkey (the dark meat has more iron), fish and seafood.
- Non-heme iron, which is absorbed less easily. Foods with non-heme iron include breakfast cereals (fortified with iron), breads and pasta (whole grain and enriched), lentils, dried peas and beans, tofu, seeds and nuts (pumpkin, sesame or peanut), dried fruit (raisins or apricots), dark green, leafy vegetables, and eggs.
If you tend to avoid red meat, skip meals, eat less to lose weight, or drink tea or coffee with your meals, you may not be getting enough iron. If you do not eat any meat, fish or poultry, you may not be getting as much and you'll need to consume more iron than people who do.
If you think your iron is low, we recommend you see your doctor. He or she can check if you need any tests done and advise you about iron supplements.
Should I Take Iron Supplements?
It may be helpful to take a vitamin supplement that includes iron to keep your reserves up. If you donate blood frequently (twice a year or more if you’re a woman, and three times a year or more if you’re a man), the amount of iron in most multivitamins may not meet your needs and iron supplements may be necessary. You don’t need a prescription to get iron supplements, however we suggest you discuss taking iron supplements with your pharmacist.