What’s A Good Iron Level? Average Iron Levels By Age, Sex + Dietary Intake

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Low iron levels can cause a dramatic decline in aerobic capacity and exercise performance, alongside a host of systemic problems.

Therefore, it is crucial to maintain adequate iron levels and eat foods high in iron to support not only your workouts but also your well-being.

But, what is a good iron level for women? How much iron do men need? What factors can decrease iron levels or increase the risk of anemia?

In this guide, we spoke with a registered dietitian to get the best advice on what good iron levels are and how to decrease the risk of iron deficiency anemia.

Let’s get started!

Iron pills.

What Are the Iron Level Blood Tests?

Alissa Steinberg, RD, a Registered Dietician and Founder of HealthyU, says that blood tests looking at your hemoglobin and hematocrit levels reflect your iron status and can be diagnostic of low iron or iron deficiency anemia, while serum ferritin levels are indicative of your total iron stores.

Therefore, when we are talking about what a good iron level in the body is or what a normal iron level is, there isn’t a singular iron level blood test.

Rather, several different blood tests together provide a more complete picture of your iron levels and whether or not you have anemia or are at risk for iron deficiency anemia.

Let’s take a look at the different iron tests:

  • Serum iron: This lab test measures how much iron is in your blood. It is not an indication of your actual iron stores.
  • Hemoglobin: This test measures the level of protein in your blood that carries oxygen to the tissues in your body. Low hemoglobin can be indicative of a low red blood cell count, which is called anemia
  • Hematocrit: The hematocrit lab test is the percentage of your blood volume that is red blood cells. Low hematocrit can be diagnostic of anemia. 
  • Transferrin: Transferrin is the primary protein that carries iron in the blood, so low transferrin means your body’s ability to transport iron is compromised.
  • Total iron-binding capacity: An indirect measurement of how much transferrin you have, so this iron lab test also provides insight into your body’s ability to transport iron.
  • Ferritin: Ferritin is one of the main proteins that helps store iron in your body, so low ferritin levels mean that you have below-average iron stores. 
Ferritin lab test blood sample.

Steinberg says that for the diagnosis of iron deficiency or to get a fuller picture of a patient’s iron status, your medical provider will also probably order a common blood test known as a CBC (Complete Blood Count) lab test.

“The CBC includes a variety of indicators like hemoglobin and hematocrit, in addition to red blood cell indices that can tell you the overall health of the cells.

This includes Mean Corpuscular Volume (MCV), which can tell you if anemia is microcytic or macrocytic, and Mean Corpuscular Hemoglobin (MCH), which can tell you if the cells are hypochromic (decreased red color due to low hemoglobin).

The CBC blood test also provides information about other types of blood cells, such as white blood cells and platelets.

What’s A Good Iron Level? Average Iron Levels By Age, Sex, and Dietary Intake

Although the “normal“ levels for each of these iron level blood tests may vary slightly depending on the cut-offs of the laboratory that you use and the country you reside in, here are the normal serum ferritin levels, normal hematocrit blood test levels, and normal hemoglobin blood test levels:1Ferritin Blood Test: Understand Results of High, Low, and Normal Levels. (n.d.). MedicineNet. https://www.medicinenet.com/ferritin_blood_test/article.htm

A test tube full of blood.
TestTypical Normal Range for MenTypical Normal Range for Women
Serum iron65–175 mcg/dL50–170 mcg/dL
Hemoglobin13.2–16.6 g/dL11.6–15 g/dL
Hematocrit38.3%–48.6%35.5%–44.9%
TIBC240–450 mcg/dL240–450 mcg/dL
Transferrin 20%–50%20%–50%
Ferritin 12 to 300 ng/mL12 to 150 ng/mL

How Much Iron Do I Need Per Day?

Iron is an essential micronutrient, which means that we have to consume iron in our diet or take iron supplements to provide the body with the iron that we need. Our bodies are unable to manufacture iron endogenously.

Therefore, in order to achieve healthy iron levels in the body and prevent iron deficiency anemia, there are dietary recommendations for how much iron you should consume each day based on your sex and age or pregnancy status.

Iron pills in a spoon.

In order to optimize your iron levels, it’s critical to consume an adequate amount in your diet or in supplemental form.

The following table shows the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for iron based on age and sex.2Read “Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc” at NAP.edu. (n.d.). In nap.nationalacademies.org. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/10026/chapter/1

As you can see in the columns to the far right, the RDA for iron is 1.8 times higher for vegetarians and vegans due to the fact that plant-based iron sources provide only non-heme iron, which is not as bioabsorbable.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the bioavailability of heme iron is about 14-18% compared to 5-12% for non-heme iron.3Office of Dietary Supplements – Iron. (n.d.). Ods.od.nih.gov. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/#en2

‌Many non-heme iron food sources are high in phytates, fiber, and certain polyphenols, which can interfere with iron absorption, which is partially attributable to this difference in the bioavailability of iron from plant-based foods.

Age/Life StageMaleFemaleVegan/Vegetarian MalesVegan/Vegetarian Females
Birth to 6 months0.27 mg 0.27 mgN/AN/A
7–12 months11 mg11 mg19.8 mg19.8 mg
1–3 years7 mg7 mg12.6 mg12.6 mg
4–8 years10 mg10 mg18 mg18 mg
9–13 years8 mg8 mg14.4 mg14.4 mg
14–18 years11 mg15 mg19.8 mg27 mg
19–50 years8 mg18 mg27 mg9 mg
51+ years8 mg8 mg14.4 mg14.4 mg
PregnancyN/A27 mgN/A18 mg
LactationN/A10 mg for under 18 years, and 9 mg for 19 and upN/A 
A variety of iron-rich foods.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average daily intake of iron from foods and/or iron supplements combined by age and sex is as follows:

Age GroupAverage Daily Iron Intake From Foods and Supplements
Ages 2 to 11 years13.7–15.1 mg/day
Ages 12 to 19 years16.3 mg/day
Women older than 19 years of age17.0–18.9 mg/day
Pregnant Women14.7 mg/day
Men older than 19 years of age19.3–20.5 mg/day

What Happens If Iron Levels Are Low?

According to Steinberg, low iron levels can lead to several consequences and symptoms. 

“Iron deficiency is a common cause of anemia, which occurs when the body lacks enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen to the body’s tissues,” explains Steinberg.

“This can lead to an increase in fatigue, impacting physical performance and cognitive function. Iron deficiency can lead to symptoms such as brittle nails and hair loss, and some people may experience skin discoloration and cold extremities.”

Food rich in vitamin C.

What Causes Low Iron Levels? 

There are several factors that can influence the iron levels in your body and your risk for anemia.

Steinberg notes that your diet generally has the most significant impact on your iron levels.

Of course, this means that consuming iron-rich foods in your diet, such as red meat, liver, poultry, iron-fortified cereals, and dark leafy green vegetables, can increase your iron levels while not eating foods high in iron or only consuming iron-rich foods infrequently or in small quantities can cause low iron levels.

But, a diet that supports healthy iron levels and prevents anemia doesn’t just begin and end with consuming foods that are good sources of iron.

Other components of the diet can either increase iron absorption or compete with iron absorption, thus impacting your iron blood levels.

“Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron, while substances like tannins and phytates can inhibit it,” warns Steinberg.

There are also certain medical conditions and lifestyle activities that can put you at risk for anemia or increase your need for iron.

A test tube with anemia written on it.

Steinberg says that eating disorders can lead to low iron levels as a result of not consuming enough iron in the diet or choosing foods that are not good sources of iron.

She also says that one of the risks of identifying iron deficiency anemia with certain eating disorders is that the patient may present in a dehydrated state.

If your total body fluid is low because you are dehydrated, your iron blood tests, such as the hemoglobin, hematocrit, and serum ferritin levels, may appear artificially inflated.

This can end up masking iron deficiency anemia from being detected with anemia blood tests unless the patient returns to a healthy hydration status (euhydration).

“Disordered eating also isn’t exclusive to those struggling with undernutrition but can affect people who are dealing with obesity as well,” adds Steinberg.

The other major factor to consider when determining how much iron you need per day is your biological sex and/or menstruation status.

Females who menstruate need more iron in the diet than males.

“Significant blood loss caused by menstruation (especially heavier periods), or injury, can deplete iron levels in the body,” explains Steinberg.

A pregnant woman.

“Oral contraceptives can reduce iron needs for women due to the potential for decreased menstruation. Pregnancy significantly impacts iron levels in women due to the increased demands on the body to support fetal development.”

Exercises such as running can also cause low iron levels due to a phenomenon known as foot-strike hemolysis, which refers to damage to red blood cells (which carry iron) from the impact of landing on your feet with each running step.4Janakiraman, K., Shenoy, S., & Sandhu, J. S. (2011). Firm insoles effectively reduce hemolysis in runners during long distance running – a comparative study. Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy, Rehabilitation, Therapy & Technology3(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1758-2555-3-12

“High-impact sports have the potential to affect iron levels because of the demands they place on the boy’s red blood cells,” notes Steinberg. “Iron stores may also deplete faster through sweating.”

Finally, Steinberg says certain health conditions or medical procedures and medications can interfere with the body’s proficiency with iron absorption, including bariatric surgeries, Crohn’s Disease, Celiac Disease, malabsorptive Disorders, and certain medications (proton pump inhibitors, anticonvulsants, etc).

If you are concerned that you have low iron, speak with your doctor about getting some blood work.

If you are struggling to eat enough foods high in iron, check out our guide to iron-rich foods here.

Foods rich in iron.

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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