Iron attaches to red blood cells enabling them to carry oxygen around the body to all the vital organs. Recommendations for daily iron intake vary from 8 to 18 milligrams per day, depending on your stage of life and whether you are male or female. For example, women who are of child-bearing age need almost double what a man of the same age needs because of the amount of iron lost in the blood during the menstrual cycle. Not getting enough iron in your diet can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. Several signs indicate that your body might not be getting enough iron.
People with low iron levels experience fatigue the most. This can be felt as general lethargy or a physical lack of energy or weakness, particularly during physical activity. But, people with low levels of iron may also experience mental fatigue or a lack of concentration that can affect work or school performance. You may feel that you want to sit down or sleep more often.
Because there is less oxygen carried to the brain, low iron levels commonly cause dizziness. You may feel light-headed or think your surroundings are spinning. This feeling is most noticeable during physical activities such as walking or climbing stairs. If you get dizzy, sit down and wait for the episode to pass before continuing any activities.
Low levels of oxygen in the blood can make you feel like you're short of breath, that you're having difficulty breathing or what might feel like pressure on the chest. The medical term for this is dyspnea. This feeling can be caused by exertion such as running, but with low iron levels, it may occur without any physical activity.
Other signs that your body isn't getting enough iron are less common and generally only appear with severely low iron levels. These signs include headaches and irritability; taste changes and cravings for non-food items such as coal, stones or ice, which characterize pica. You may have changes in your appearance such as pale skin, a smooth or inflamed tongue, and flaking or peeling finger and toe nails.
Getting Enough Iron in Your Diet
Meat and animal food products such as eggs contain the most easily absorbed type of iron, heme iron, and red meat, such as beef and lamb, contain more iron than white meat such as chicken. Vegetarian sources of iron -- non-heme iron-- are less well absorbed but can still provide significant amounts. Beans and legumes, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified flour products such as bread and breakfast cereals are good sources of non-heme iron.