Do foods high in iron or supplements increase my energy?

Low dietary iron intake has been linked to decreased energy levels. Iron deficiency may cause chronic anemia. Anemia means decreased synthesis of hemoglobin protein and red blood cells. Hence, inadequate oxygen transport to muscle tissue. So, eating foods high in iron can increase your energy!

How much iron do we need daily?

According to the Office of Dietary Supplements most people need about 8-18 mg of iron daily.[1]

Adult men need only 8 mg of iron a day.

On the other hand, women need much more. Women need 18 mg of iron daily, as they have increased iron losses, due to menstruation. Additionally, women in pregnancy need about 27 mg of iron daily, due to the rapid growth of the placenta and the fetus.

We store about 1-3 g of iron in our bodies. Although iron is recycled by the human body, daily dietary iron intake is substantial for good health and increased energy. Especially, women, athletes, and teens are vulnerable to iron deficiency.

Health benefits

Anemia isn’t the only issue of iron deficiency. Actually, every cell of the human body uses iron. For instance, iron is vital for muscle metabolism and healthy connective tissue. Additionally, iron is important for neurological development, brain function, cellular functioning, and synthesis of many hormones.[1]

Furthermore, adequate dietary intake of iron is necessary both for pregnant women and women who try to conceive. It seems that iron intake can protect and even reverse ovulatory infertility!

Also, iron deficiency may cause manganese toxicity. Exceeding the maximum safe dose of manganese may cause adverse effects as well.

Can insufficient iron intake cause decreased energy?

Adequate iron intake is vital for increased energy levels. Iron is key for the synthesis of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen from the lungs to other body parts. Iron deficiency can cause lack of energy, as red blood cells in the blood aren’t enough, neither efficient, as they have less amount of hemoglobin.[2]

In other words, iron deficiency can cause anemia. Besides poor diet, chronic or acute disease can cause anemia, as well. Poor dietary intake of iron is maybe the most common reason of anemia, though.

World Health Organization estimates that 2 billion people are anemic worldwide! Moreover, iron deficiency is the reason of about 50% of all anemia causes. Pregnant women and young children are most vulnerable to anemia.

How can I increase my energy?

Firstly, start consuming more iron-rich foods.

Secondly, research shows that adequate intake of vitamin B12, vitamin A, folate, riboflavin and copper is vital for proper production of hemoglobin. [2] Remember… hemoglobin carries and transports the oxygen around the body. More oxygen means more energy!

We should consume foods high in all these micro-nutrients. Lack in any of these micronutrients may cause anemia. Hence, decreased energy levels and fatigue. Therefore, healthy diet is key for fighting anemia.

Above all, adequate vitamin B12 intake can be tricky. Only a few foods contain high amounts of vitamin B12. Try to consume lots of them.

On the other hand, there are many foods high in vitamin A.

Another crucial compound for high energy is Coenzyme Q10! Coenzyme Q10 helps cells generate energy. The human body produces Coenzyme Q10 naturally. This process becomes less efficient with age, though. So, eating foods high in Coenzyme Q10 is vital for preventing fatigue. CoQ10 supplementation is considered pretty safe as well.

How to measure my iron levels?

The most common way to measure your iron levels is by testing your serum ferritin. Serum ferritin is a good indicator of body iron stores. Serum ferritin decreases during the first stage of iron depletion.[1]

So, if you feel tired all the time, maybe it’s time to visit your health care provider and have a blood test. Low serum ferritin means low iron levels. Hence, increased fatigue.

Serum ferritin
Iron levels
lower than 30iron deficiency
lower than 10iron deficiency anemia 
Check your iron stores

However, the serum ferritin tests aren’t always accurate. If you have some type of inflammation, you may have increased serum ferritin concentrations. Always consult your physician.

Why taking iron supplements isn’t the best option

You should take iron supplements only after consulting your doctor. Excessive iron intake from supplements may have side effects!

Side effects of excessive iron intake are gastric upset, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, or faintness. Furthermore, severe overdoses of iron can lead to multisystem organ failure, coma, convulsions, and even death.[1]

The Office of Dietary Supplements proposes to consume no more than 45 mg of iron daily. Only physicians should prescribe higher doses to replenish iron stores.

Hence, eating foods high in iron is the easiest and safest way to increase your energy levels.

On the other hand, taking taurine supplements, especially if you’re a vegan or an athlete, may help you increase your energy levels.

Animal vs plant-based sources of iron

There are 2 main types of dietary iron. The first is heme iron. Heme iron comes only from animal sources. The second type is nonheme iron. Plant-based food contains only nonheme iron.

Heme iron is the most easily absorbed. Heme iron from red meat, fish and poultry is highly bioavailable (15%-35%).

On the other hand, nonheme iron is less absorbed (2%-20%). But, this isn’t a problem, if you follow a healthy balanced plant-based diet. Studies have shown that despite its lower bioavailability, nonheme iron can contribute to the total iron intake more than heme iron.

So many plant-based foods are high in nonheme iron. Cereals, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are the best sources of nonheme iron. Nuts and seeds are high in iron, as well. We simply consume more iron from plant-based sources.

Plant-based foods high in iron

If you feel tired all the time, or you’re pregnant, consider eating lots of these iron-rich foods. You have so many options! In the table below, you can see some of the richest foods in iron.

GreensIron FruitsIron CerealsIron BeansIron
3.1goji berries6.43barley

leeks2.1currants1.0corn2.71white beans3.7
1.64blackberries0.62red kidney
1.1avocado0.55Bayo beans2.61
beetroot0.8cherries0.53black beans2.1
onions0.21pineapple 0.29
Table of plant-based foods rich in iron (mg/100g).

Moreover, you could significantly increase your daily iron intake by drinking fruit juices high in iron, such as prune or raspberry juice, or consuming a tbsp of honey!

How can I increase iron absorption?

The best tip for increasing iron absorption is consuming foods high in vitamin C, as well. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from food. Besides orange juice, lemon juice, grapefruit, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale are good sources of vitamin C.

See the whole list of the richest common foods in vitamin C here.

Cow’s milk and dairy inhibits iron absorption

High dietary calcium intake has a negative effect on nonheme and heme iron absorption. Cow’s milk and other dairy products are particularly high in calcium. Research has shown that calcium dose higher than 75 mg may inhibit iron absorption. A glass of milk contains about 275 mg of calcium.

Maybe it’s time to skip dairy products. Don’t worry. Plant-based foods are high in calcium as well.

Certainly, don’t eat dairy products, along with foods high in iron, or after taking iron supplements. Calcium in dairy will inhibit iron absorption!

Besides milk proteins (casein, whey), egg proteins may also inhibit calcium absorption! Especially proteins that are found in egg white.