The Importance of Iron in the Diet
Due to the prevalence of iron under-consumption, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 lists iron as a nutrient of public health concern for certain segments of the population: women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and young children.2 Since these groups have higher iron requirements, they are at a special risk of insufficient iron, which can lead to health problems.
Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, the red blood cell protein that transports oxygen throughout the bloodstream. Without enough iron, the body can’t make enough red blood cells to meet oxygen demands. Myoglobin, which supplies oxygen to the muscles, also requires iron. These key roles of iron in the body make it particularly important for active consumers since low levels in the diet can lead to fatigue.
Iron is also involved in metabolism and energy production, growth and development, cell division, and the synthesis of hormones and connective tissue. Since low iron intake can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which impairs immune function, many consumers also associate iron with immune health.
Iron Requirements for Females
Through age thirteen, females and males have the same Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron. However, the onset of menstruation increases a female’s iron needs to compensate for the monthly loss of iron. At age fourteen, a female’s RDA for iron jumps from 8 to 15 mg per day. By nineteen, it’s 18 mg—more than double the RDA for males the same age. For pregnant women, this value reaches 27 mg.