Iron is a vital nutrient that contributes to bodily functions such as hemoglobin production and the synthesis of several hormones. It is indispensable for people of all ages – from pregnant women to young children, athletes and the elderly – as it plays a crucial role in the growth, development and proper functioning of the immune system.

Inadequate levels of iron in the body can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which affects more than 1.2 billion people worldwide. Iron deficiency without anemia is around three times more common.

How much iron do you need?

The body can obtain iron from a natural diet and store it. There are two types of iron – heme and nonheme. Heme iron gets easily absorbed into the body and can be obtained from animal sources such as meat, poultry, seafood and organ meats.

Nonheme iron is obtained from plant sources such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, dry fruits and nuts. However, since nonheme iron is not easily absorbed, people who follow a plant-based diet should consume 80% more iron to meet their dietary requirements.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) or the average daily dietary intake to meet the nutrient requirement of iron in adults below the age of 50 years is 8 mg for men and 18 mg for women. For pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, it is 27 mg and 9 mg respectively. Among adolescents (between 14 and 18 years), the RDA of iron is 11 mg for boys and 15 mg for girls. The RDA is 11 mg/day for children below 12 months, 7 mg/day for 1 to 3-year-olds and 10 mg/day for 4 to 8-year-olds.

Signs and complications of iron deficiency

Fatigue, shortness of breath, frequent infections, palpitations, headaches, hair loss and cold hands and feet are some of the symptoms of iron deficiency. Some people show cravings for things such as dirt or clay, develop brittle and spoon-shaped nails, sores at the corners of the mouth and difficulty swallowing.

Severe iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm birth and low-birth babies. Rapid or irregular heartbeat can be a sign of iron deficiency anemia, which can lead to complications such as an enlarged heart or heart failure. Children with severe iron deficiency may have delayed growth and development.

When do you need supplements?

Low levels can mostly be met through a diet rich in iron such as fortified cereals, red meat, dried fruit and beans. However, when the levels are really low, doctors may recommend supplements to restore iron and prevent complications from deficiency.

However, supplements are not for the treatment, cure or prevention of a disease and cannot help people without deficiency.

People who take supplements need to get a blood check to know if their levels have improved. Taking high doses of iron supplements can cause issues such as constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. It can also lead to serious side effects, including inflammation of the stomach lining and ulcers.