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What's the big deal about iron?

by wichealth nutritionists

You’ve probably heard that iron helps keep our blood strong, but what does that really mean? How does this mineral help us, and how can we make sure we and our families get enough of it?


To start with, we all need iron. It’s part of a super important protein in our blood called hemoglobin. This protein carries oxygen to our whole body. It helps give us energy for work and play. It helps keep us healthy. And for kids, it helps them grow well.


You may have heard about anemia. If your blood is low in iron, you have a type of anemia. This can make you feel tired and weak, and get sick more easily. If you are pregnant, your baby could be born early or small. Kids may not eat well or grow well, and they may have trouble learning.


What can cause someone to have low iron in their blood? Menstruating women lose blood every month, which can cause iron levels to be low. It’s common in pregnant women, because their bodies need to make a lot more blood to nourish their babies. Young children often are low in iron, for two main reasons. They may drink a lot of milk (an important food, but low in iron). And they may have picky eating behaviors. Also, people who eat vegan or vegetarian diets need to choose foods carefully to include plenty of iron foods.


So, now that we know how important iron is, and what can cause low iron, how can we be sure to get enough? Fortunately, a lot of different foods contain iron. Some have iron naturally and some have it added (called fortification). Meats, chicken and seafood have the most iron. Also, our bodies absorb this iron easily. But many other foods provide iron too. Dried beans and peas, tofu and eggs are great. Whole grain and enriched breads, tortillas, pasta, rice and cereals (including all WIC cereals) are also good. And leafy green veggies give us some iron too.


Vitamin C helps our bodies use the iron in the foods we eat. So it’s a good idea to have a vitamin C food at the same meal as an iron food. For example, you could have some fruit on your morning cereal, or some tomatoes with your bean burrito. Here are some foods that are high in vitamin C: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, melons, oranges, mango, strawberries, and all WIC juices. Pair them with iron foods for extra strength iron!!


Here are some wichealth.org Health eKitchen recipes that mix iron foods with vitamin C foods for lots of iron power! Your kids are sure to give some of these a thumbs up!


Breakfast Casserole

Pasta and Bean Soup

Tex Mex Salad

Southwestern Stuffed Potatoes

Salmon Cakes

Rice and Tuna Casserole

Spaghetti with Veggies and Meat Sauce

Sheet Pan Paprika Chicken


Here are some other tips for getting plenty of iron:

  • If you’re pregnant, be sure to take your prenatal vitamins.

  • Breastfeed your baby. If your baby drinks formula, be sure to use an iron-fortified one.

  • At around 6 months, start offering iron-rich foods like baby cereals and pureed meats.

  • Children and adults should get 2 to 3 iron-rich foods daily.

  • If your baby or child has low iron, they may need iron drops. Be sure to give the right amount, and keep all iron pills and drops out of reach of children!

This post was created by one of our wichealth nutritionists. Do you have a question you'd like answered by one of our nutritionists in a future post? let us know in the comments!

Want more tips to get you and your family eating plenty of iron foods? wichealth.org has a free online lesson called Building Healthy Bodies with Iron Foods. Find it on wichealth.org in the Healthy Families category!