Why is Iron Important in Our Diet?

Iron is an essential mineral that helps our bodies to make hemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that makes it possible for them to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. Iron is also important for DNA synthesis, breathing, immune function and energy production. When our bodies lack of iron, we may feel weak, tired, dizzy, cold and irritable. Low iron levels can also cause headaches.

Iron is also essential for the developing brain. Iron deficiency with and without anemia in infancy can have long term negative impacts on brain function and behavior, and even when levels are corrected, those effects may not be completely reversed.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

There are many different types of anemia, but the most common type is caused by a shortage of iron. Iron Deficiency Anaemia is defined as a decrease in the number of red blood cells or the amount of hemoglobin in the blood. It can be caused by blood loss, insufficient dietary intake, or poor absorption of iron from food. 

Low iron levels can be caused by blood loss, for example during an operation. Girls and women who have heavy periods are more at risk of low iron levels because of their monthly blood loss. Pregnancy can also cause women to have low iron levels. If you’re pregnant, severe iron deficiency may increase your baby’s risk of being born too early, or smaller than normal.

Iron deficiency anemia can be prevented by eating a diet containing sufficient amounts of iron or by iron supplementation.

You can find iron in both animal and plant foods. 

Animal sources are called “heme iron” and include meat, fish and poultry. Our bodies can easily absorb this type of iron. 

Plant sources are called “non-heme iron” and include dried beans, peas, lentils and some fruits and vegetables. 

Vegetarians need almost twice the daily recommended amount of iron compared with non-vegetarians that is because iron from plant-based foods is not absorbed as well by our bodies as iron from animal food sources.

How much iron do we need?

The amount of iron we need each day depends on our age, gender, and overall health.

Iron rich foods

Lean red meat
Turkey and chicken
Liver is rich in iron, but it is NOT recommended for pregnant women
Fish, particularly oily fish
Vegetables: Dark-green leafy greens like watercress, curly kale, broccoli, spinach, turnip greens, and collards, potatoes with the skin, lima beans, green peas, and all other beans (e.g. kidney, black, navy, etc.), and tomato sauce.
Fruits: Dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, prunes, and prune juice.
Breads, Cereals Rice & Pasta: Iron-fortified whole-grain breads, pastas, rice, and cereals. Read food labels and look for breads and cereals that have 20% or more of the Daily Value for iron.
Nuts/Seeds: Nuts and seeds such as peanuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds, etc.

Things to keep in mind when trying to increase your iron intake

There are some foods and beverages that increase and some that decrease iron absorption. So, when eating iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements try leaving at least an hour between the foods and beverages that decrease iron absorption.

Foods that are high in calcium will decrease iron absorption. So, do not take an iron supplement or eat high iron foods with milk.

Also coffee, tea, and cola will decrease iron absorption.

On the other hand, foods and beverages that are high in vitamin C will increase iron absorption. So, orange juice (without calcium) is a good beverage to use when taking an iron supplement or eating foods that are high in iron.

Very high fiber cereals, such as All Bran or Raisin Bran will decrease iron absorption. So, do not take your iron supplement at the same time as eating these high fiber cereals.

Iron supplements can often upset stomach and cause constipation so when choosing an iron supplement look for Slow Release form of iron. These often cause less stomach upset and constipation than standard iron supplements.

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