7 Iron-Deficiency Symptoms and How to Eat More of the Mineral

Feeling exhausted? These iron deficiency symptoms can tell you when you're not consuming enough iron, but these sources of iron in food can help.

Michelle Honeyager Contributor
Michelle is a contributor for CNET.
Michelle Honeyager
Medically Reviewed
Reviewed by: Amelia Ti Medical Reviewer
Amelia Ti is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES) based in NYC. She completed her Bachelor's in Nutrition & Dietetics at NYU and Master's in Applied Nutrition at Russell Sage College. Amelia's evidence-based knowledge and passion for the field allow her to translate nutrition research and innovation to the public.
Expertise Nutrition | Dietetics | Diabetes Care | Nutrition Innovation Credentials
  • Registered Dietitian
  • Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist
  • New York University, BS in Nutrition & Dietetics
  • Russell Sage College, MS in Applied Nutrition
4 min read
A woman wearing glasses with an exhausted expression laying back on a light gray sofa.
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You may not realize that feeling exhausted or weak could be caused by an iron deficiency, but these are common symptoms. Iron comes from specific foods, and if you aren't consuming enough of those iron-enriched foods, you could be missing a key part of your diet. 

Iron deficiency anemia can develop for several reasons: 1) You lose more blood, which contains iron, than your body can replace; 2) Your body struggles to absorb iron; 3) You're not eating enough dietary sources of iron; 4) Your body needs more iron than normal. Biological sex, lifestyles, underlying health conditions and age can also make people more prone to iron deficiency. Read on to learn how much iron you should be getting, iron-deficiency symptoms and how to get more sources of iron in food. 

Are you getting enough iron?

It's important to know how much iron you should be getting. Amounts vary between men and women, with men needing 8 mg of iron per day and women needing 18 mg of iron per day. Women above the age of 51 only need 8 mg of iron daily, while those who are pregnant need 27 mg per day and those who are lactating need 9 mg on a daily basis.  

Luckily, you can get iron from a wide range of foods. These can include: 

  • Red meat, poultry and pork
  • Beans and peas
  • Seafood
  • Dark leafy vegetables, such as kale and spinach
  • Raisins, apricots and other dried fruit
  • Nuts 
  • Iron-fortified starch like pasta and cereal 

Certain types of people can also be at risk for iron deficiency. If you menstruate, you can lose iron because of the blood loss. Infants and children may be iron deficient if they do not get enough breast milk or formula. Children and infants may also need extra iron during periods of growth spurts. If you donate blood frequently, you may need extra iron. Vegetarians and vegans can also be prone to iron deficiency anemia if they don't seek out alternate sources of iron other than meat and seafood. 

Read more: These Are the Best Food Sources for Every Vitamin You Need

Potential side effects to watch out for

A woman laying on a light gray sofa next to a desk with her hand on her head.

You may be wondering: How do I know if I have an iron deficiency? There are several main iron deficiency symptoms to be on the lookout for. Some of them seem like everyday ailments, like headaches, or side effects can be more unexpected, like the urge to eat clay.   

Extreme fatigue or weakness

Dealing with extreme fatigue or weakness is a common way to tell if you are deficient in iron. Without enough iron, your body does not produce red blood cells properly, so your bloodstream becomes less efficient at carrying oxygen. Without oxygen being carried where it needs to go, you end up feeling very weak and tired

Chest issues 

Tying into the point above, other symptoms can be chest pain, fast heartbeat and shortness of breath. These can also result from oxygen not efficiently being carried by the bloodstream to where it needs to go. 

Headache, dizziness and lightheadedness 

If the body is running low on iron, even the brain can receive less oxygen. That can cause several cognitive impairments, like dizziness and lightheadedness. Iron deficiency anemia is even associated with headaches and migraines

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Cold hands and feet 

If your body isn't getting enough oxygen, you may end up feeling cold. Because iron deficiency affects how the bloodstream transfers oxygen around your body, you can end up with cold hands and feet.  

Cravings for non-nutritional objects 

If you're dealing with extreme iron deficiency, you might find yourself craving items that have no nutritional value and can't be digested. This condition is referred to as pica. People with pica may eat non-food substances like ice, soil, clay and paper. Pica is associated with iron deficiency, but no one quite knows how the two are related. Iron therapy does tend to cure pica behavior.  

Poor appetite  

At the other end of the spectrum, you may find yourself not feeling hungry at all. The reasons for this are also unclear. Some theories suggest it may be related to certain hormone and blood protein levels. 

Pale skin  

Your skin could also become pale or look washed out if you are deficient in iron. A lack of iron can lead to fewer red blood cells, which can cause pale skin.

What is the major cause of iron deficiency?

There are a few reasons you may be iron deficient. The most direct cause is simply not getting enough iron in your diet. Blood loss through heavy, long and frequent menstruation, injury, illness, cancer, gastrointestinal bleeding or blood donation might also be culprits. Even nosebleeds can cause iron deficiency. Pregnant people can be at risk for iron deficiency since more iron is needed for increased blood volume and the fetus. Certain gastrointestinal disorders can also impede your body's ability to absorb iron from the food you eat.  

Rare causes of iron deficiency include certain stomach infections, gastrointestinal surgeries and genetic conditions.  

How to add more iron to your diet

A person in a light green tee carrying a white colander filled with spinach.
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If you suspect you're not getting enough iron, you may want to schedule a blood test with your doctor to see if you have iron-deficiency anemia. If you do, you can try adding more iron to your diet by:  

  • Cooking food in cast iron skillets to increase the amount of iron in your foods
  • Collecting recipes that feature iron-rich foods
  • Snacking on nuts and seeds during the day
  • Eating whole grains
  • Pairing specific vitamin-rich foods (foods high in vitamin C, vitamin A and beta-carotene) with iron-rich foods to help you absorb more iron
  • Choosing iron-enriched cereal or bread 
  • Making an iron-rich salad full of plant sources of iron, like spinach, peas, lentils, white mushrooms or black olives

Sometimes it can be hard to fit iron-rich foods into our diets due to food budget constraints or hectic lifestyles. You may want to look into using an oral iron supplement or multivitamin, but be sure to talk to your doctor before trying anything new.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.