What is iron?

Iron is the second most common element on Earth, and the most widely used metal. It is also an essential trace mineral that our body needs for normal cellular functions, such as oxygen transport, energy production, DNA synthesis, and cell growth and replication. Iron is a primary component for two proteins in the red blood cells:

Hemoglobin – Carries oxygen from lungs to the rest of the body.

Myoglobin – Binds and stores oxygen in muscle cells.

In our body, around 70% of iron is found in hemoglobin and myoglobin. Much of the remaining iron is stored in the liver, spleen and bone for future use, especially in the cases of insufficient dietary intake of iron. Because our body only excretes very little iron, iron metabolism is tightly regulated to prevent iron poisoning.

iron health benefits, high iron food list

Iron deficiency

The amount of iron you need daily depends on your age, sex, and whether you consume a mostly vegetable-based diet. This makes iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, especially affecting children and women. The most common symptom is linked to the development of anemia, because of decreased hemoglobin and myoglobin levels result in decreased oxygen delivery to active tissues, which impairs athletic performance and physical work capacity in different ways.

People at risk of iron deficiency:
  • Pregnant women – The amount of iron that women need increases during pregnancy due to increases in maternal red blood cell production. Iron deficiency during pregnancy could lead to maternal and infant mortality, premature birth, and low birth-weight.

  • Vegetarian with inadequate sources of iron – As iron from plants (non-heme) is less efficiently absorbed than that from meat sources, vegetarian diet requires more iron-rich foods overall.

  • Infants and young children – Dietary iron is vital for the growth of infants, especially those born with low birth-weight or whose mothers have iron deficiency.

  • Frequent blood donors and Women with heavy menstrual bleeding – excessive blood loss can deplete hemoglobin and iron stores, which result an increased risk of iron deficiency.

  • Athletes with regular intense exercise – Daily heavy endurance training will speed up iron loss due to expanding blood cell mass and muscle mass.

  • People with cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, or heart failure – chronic blood loss, chemotherapy-induced anemia, undergoing certain gastrointestinal surgical procedures, and iron malabsorption could lead to iron deficiency in this group.

Iron health benefits:

1. Supports healthy pregnancy

Sufficient iron intake during pregnancy is vital for infant’s growth and development. Low intakes could lead to low birth-weight, premature birth, low iron stores, and impaired cognitive development. All pregnant women are advised to eat iron-rich foods and take supplementation to insure reduced risks of health-related problems for their babies.

2. Prevents anemia

Anemia is directly associate with low production of red blood cells and hemoglobin, causes low oxygen flow into tissues and results in low energy levels. Anemia symptoms may include fatigue, fast heartbeat, dizziness or shortness of breath. Women during pregnancy or menstruation have higher risk of developing anemia. New red blood cells must replace those that have been lost, sufficient amount of dietary iron is necessary for treating and preventing anemia.

3. Maintains brain health

Iron is needed for proper brain functions because it carries oxygen to the brain. If the brain does not receive enough oxygen it needs, poor attention, impaired memory or other cognitive function will start to appear. In fact, our brain uses approximately 20% of the oxygen in our bloodstream which is critical for brain health.

4. Supports immune system

Iron plays a key role in energy metabolism in the human body. it helps to provide strength to the immune system, as red blood cells are necessary for supplying oxygen to damaged tissues and organs. The healing process needs this essential nutrient to fight off infection or disease development.

Intake recommendation

Dietary iron has two main forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is more readily absorbed and its absorption is less affected by other dietary factors; this is the form present in meat, poultry, and fish. Non-heme iron come from plants, dairy products, and iron salts added to food and supplements. The absorption of non-heme iron is strongly affected by other dietary factors, such as vitamin C and other organic acids.

The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies developed the Adequate Intake of iron for different age group:

Age Male Female Pregnant Lactating
0–6 months 0.27 mg 0.27 mg
7–12 months 11 mg 11 mg
1–3 years 7 mg 7 mg
4–8 years 10 mg 10 mg
9–13 years 8 mg 8 mg
14–18 years 11 mg 15 mg 27 mg 10 mg
19–50 years 8 mg 18 mg 27 mg 9 mg
51–70 years 8 mg 8 mg
71+ years 8 mg 8 mg

High iron food list: Beef, liver, chicken, oyster, clam, tuna, spinach, cereals fortified with iron, dark chocolate, lentils, tofu, kidney beans, cashew nut

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