Dietary Iron and Iron Supplements

Iron is a mineral that's necessary for life. Iron plays a key role in the making of red blood cells, which carry oxygen. You can get iron from food and from supplements. If you don't have enough iron, you may develop anemia, a low level of red blood cells. However, most people in the U.S. get their iron from food.

Why do people take iron?

Iron supplements are most often used for certain types of anemia. Anemia can cause fatigue and other symptoms. If you have symptoms of anemia, seek care from your health care provider. Don't try to treat it on your own.

Iron supplements are often prescribed to treat anemia caused by:

  • Pregnancy
  • Heavy menstrual periods
  • Kidney disease
  • Chemotherapy

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Those who may be at risk for iron deficiency include preterm infants, young children, teenage girls, and pregnant women, as well as people with certain health conditions including chronic heart failure, Crohn's disease, celiac disease and ulcerative colitis. Iron supplements are commonly recommended for women who are pregnant or of childbearing age to help prevent anemia. Before taking an iron supplement, ask your health care provider if it is right for you.

How much iron should you take?

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) includes the iron you get from both the food you eat and any supplements you take.


Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)


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7-12 months

11 mg/day

1-3 years

7 mg/day

4-8 years

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10 mg/day

9-13 years

8 mg/day


14-18 years

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15 mg/day

19-50 years

18 mg/day

51 years and over

8 mg/day

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27 mg/day


Under 19 years: 10 mg/day

19 years and over: 9 mg/day

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14-18 years

11 mg/day

19 years and up

8 mg/day

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Strict vegetarians may need to take in higher levels of iron.

At high doses, iron is toxic. For adults and children ages 14 and up, the upper limit -- the highest dose that can be taken safely -- is 45 mg a day. Children under age 14 should not take more than 40 mg a day.

Can you get iron naturally from foods?

For most people, a good diet provides enough iron. Natural food sources of iron include:

  • Meat, fish, and poultry
  • Vegetables, like spinach, kale, and broccoli
  • Dried fruits and nuts
  • Beans, lentils, and peas

Iron is also added to many fortified foods, such as cereals and enriched breads.

Iron from animal sources is absorbed better by the body. However, you can help your body absorb plant-based iron by eating a fruit or vegetable that is high in vitamin C (for example, red bell peppers, kiwis, oranges).

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