Health answers: What are signs of iron deficiency?

Q. What are the signs of iron deficiency, and which foods prevent it?

A. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency, and can lead to anemia (a lack of red blood cells). The most prominent sign is fatigue, says Jean Connors, a hematologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It’s harder to do the same amount of exercise you used to do,” she says, and symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, lightheadedness, and pallor. More rarely, iron deficiency can cause pica, a condition characterized by cravings to eat ice, chalk, or corn starch. It has also been linked to restless leg syndrome.

Iron deficiency is most common in children and pregnant women. Adolescent girls and women of childbearing age are also at risk because they lose iron through menstruation.

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Diet plays a critical role in maintaining iron levels. Foods high in iron include meats (particularly red meat), tofu, beans and lentils, dark leafy greens, dried fruits, and fortified cereals. “Iron has two different chemical states, and the one in meat and fish and chicken are in the right form for your body to absorb,” Connors says. Vegetarians have more difficulty absorbing iron, but pairing iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C can help.

Your body maintains stores of iron in the liver but you can only absorb a certain fixed amount of iron every day, Connors adds, so it can take a while to fully replenish these stores if depleted. Treatment often involves taking iron supplements for extended periods of time.