Iron is a vital mineral for the proper functioning of hemoglobin, a protein necessary to transport oxygen in the blood. Iron also has a role in a variety of other important processes in the body.
A shortage of iron in the blood can lead to a variety of serious health problems, including iron deficiency anemia. About 10 million people in the United States have low iron levels, and approximately 5 million of them have been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia.
Iron benefits, uses and properties
Iron helps preserve many vital functions in the body, including general energy and focus, gastrointestinal processes, the immune system, and regulation of body temperature. The benefits of iron often go unnoticed until a person is not getting enough of it. Iron deficiency anemia can cause fatigue, palpitations, pale skin, and shortness of breath.
Blood volume and red blood cell production increase dramatically during pregnancy to supply oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus. As a result, the demand for iron also increases. While the body typically maximizes iron absorption during pregnancy, insufficient iron intake or other factors that affect how iron is absorbed can lead to iron deficiency.
Low iron intake during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm labor and low birth weight, as well as low iron stores and poor cognitive or behavioral development in babies. Low iron pregnant women may be more prone to infections because iron also supports the immune system.
It is clear that iron supplements are necessary for pregnant and iron-deficient women. However, the possibility of recommending additional iron to all pregnant women, even those with normal iron levels, is being investigated. It is argued that all pregnant women should take 30 to 60 milligrams (mg) of iron supplements every day of their pregnancy, regardless of their iron levels.
Lack of iron in the diet can affect how efficiently the body uses energy. Iron carries oxygen to the muscles and brain and is crucial for physical and mental performance. Low iron levels can lead to poor concentration, increased irritability, and less stamina.
Better athletic performance.
Iron deficiency is more common in athletes, especially young athletes, than in people who do not lead an active lifestyle. This appears to be particularly true of female endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners. Some experts suggest that female endurance athletes should add an additional 10 mg of elemental iron per day to the current RDA for iron intake.
Iron deficiency in athletes decreases athletic performance and weakens the activity of the immune system. Lack of hemoglobin can greatly reduce performance during physical exertion, as it decreases the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles.
Recommended Intake of Iron
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for elemental iron depends on the age and gender of the person. Vegetarians also have different iron requirements.
0 to 6 months: 0.27 milligrams (mg)
From 7 to 12 months: 11 mg.
1 to 3 years: 7 mg.
4 to 8 years: 10 mg.
9 to 13 years: 8 mg.
14 to 18 years: 11 mg.
19 years and older: 8 mg.
9 to 13 years: 8 mg.
14 to 18 years: 15 mg.
19 to 50 years: 18 mg.
51 years and older: 8 mg.
During pregnancy: 27 mg.
In lactation between 14 and 18 years: 10 mg.
During lactation to over 19 years: 9 mg.
Iron supplements can be helpful when people find it difficult to get enough iron from just dietary measures, such as a plant-based diet. It is best to try to get enough in your diet only by eliminating or reducing factors that can make it difficult to absorb iron and by eating foods rich in iron.
This is because many iron-rich foods also contain a variety of other beneficial nutrients that work together to support overall health.
Iron important details
- The recommended daily allowance (RDA) varies by age, but pregnant women need it the most.
- Iron promotes a healthy pregnancy, increased energy, and better athletic performance. Iron deficiency is more common in female athletes.
- The best sources of iron in the diet are canned clams, fortified cereals, and navy beans.
- Too much iron can increase the risk of liver cancer and diabetes.
Iron has a low bioavailability, which means that large amounts are not easily absorbed by the small intestine. This decreases its availability for use and increases the probability of deficiency.
The efficiency of absorption depends on a number of factors, including:
- the iron source
- Other components of the diet.
- gastrointestinal health
- Use of medications or supplements.
- the general iron status of a person
- Presence of iron promoters, such as vitamin C.
- In many countries, wheat products and infant formulas are fortified with iron.
There are two types of dietary iron, known as heme and non-heme. Animal sources of food, including meat and seafood, contain heme iron. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body.
Non-heme iron, the type found in plants, requires the body to take several steps to absorb it. Plant-based sources of iron include fortified beans, nuts, soybeans, vegetables, and grains.
The bioavailability of heme iron from animal sources can be up to 40 percent. However, plant-based non-heme iron has a bioavailability of between 2 and 20 percent. For this reason, the RDA for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than for meat eaters to compensate for the lower absorption level of plant-based foods.
Consuming foods rich in vitamin C along with non-heme sources of iron can dramatically increase iron absorption.
When following a vegetarian diet, it is also important to consider components of foods and medications that block or reduce iron absorption, such as:
- Proton pump inhibitors and omeprazole, used to reduce the acidity of stomach contents.
- Polyphenols in cereals and legumes, as well as in spinach.
- Tannins in coffee, tea, some wine, and certain berries.
- Phosphates in carbonated beverages, such as soft drinks.
- Phytates in beans and grains.
Some of the best sources of iron include:
- Canned clams: 3 ounces (oz) provide 26 milligrams (mg) of iron.
- Oatmeal from dry, fortified and simple cereals: 100 g provides 24.72 mg.
- White beans: One cup provides 9/21.
- Dark chocolate (45 to 69 percent cocoa): One bar provides 12.99 mg.
- Cooked Pacific Oysters: 3 oz provides 7.82 mg.
- Cooked Spinach: One cup provides 6.43 mg.
- Beef liver: 3 oz provides 4.17 mg.
- Boiled and Drained Lentils: Half a cup provides 3.3 mg.
- Firm tofu: half a cup provides 2.03 mg.
- Cooked and Drained Chickpeas: Half a cup provides 2.37 mg.
- Stewed and Canned Tomatoes: One-half cup provides 1.7 mg.
- Lean Ground Beef: 3 oz. Provides 2.07 mg.
- Medium Baked Potato: This provides 1.87 mg.
- Roasted Cashews: 3 oz provides 2 mg.
Calcium can decrease the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron. In most cases, a typical mixed Western-style diet is considered balanced in terms of enhancers and inhibitors of iron absorption.
Discuss taking an iron supplement with a doctor or healthcare professional, as some of the signs of iron overload can resemble those of iron deficiency. Excess iron can be dangerous, and iron supplements are not recommended, except in cases of diagnosed deficiency, or when a person is at high risk of developing iron deficiency.
It is preferable to achieve optimal iron intake and status through diet rather than supplements. This can help minimize the risk of an iron overdose and ensure a good intake of the other nutrients found along with iron in food.
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Dr. Samantha Robson ( CRN: 0510146-5) is a nutritionist and website content reviewer related to her area of expertise. With a postgraduate degree in Nutrition from The University of Arizona, she is a specialist in Sports Nutrition from Oxford University and is also a member of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.