Just as the earth is composed of minerals and water, so too is the human body. One of these minerals is iron, an essential micromineral which has several vital roles to play in keeping us healthy. Most of us only need a miniscule amount of iron each day, though some people’s needs increase at certain stages of their life. To maintain the right balance of iron, we need to include enough foods in our diet to meet 1-3g we naturally excrete from our body each day(1). Without this, we can feel weak, excessively tired and more susceptible to illnesses such as anemia.
What is iron?
Iron is a micromineral, also known as a trace element or trace mineral which originates in the ground. Iron from ground is absorbed by the roots of plants growing in the soil and from here it makes its way into our food chain. We can obtain these microscopic amounts of iron either directly through eating the plants or indirectly through eating the animals which have eaten plants. Within the body, iron is a component of haemoglobin(2) the oxygen carrying protein in red blood cells. It is also part of a protein found in muscle cells called myoglobin.
How iron is used in the body
Iron is found in all cells of the body and has specific tasks to perform which is what makes it an essential mineral. Iron plays a major part in transporting oxygen around the body from our lungs to cells, muscles and organs. Iron is found in a variety of foods, however it’s not always in a form that’s easily absorbed. For example, iron from meat is easier to absorb than plant sourced iron. The body helps with this by secreting gastric acid from the stomach, converting it into an easier to absorb form. And we can further assist iron absorption by eating with food high in vitamin C. When the body’s needs for iron increase, greater amounts of iron are absorbed from food.
When iron needs increase
People’s needs for iron can vary depending on their situation. For example, women who are pregnant or breast feeding have a greater need for iron, as do menstruating women, particularly those with heavy blood loss. Children and teenagers who are growing fast and older adults because of changes to their metabolic rate. And babies who are not breast-feeding will need to drink iron-fortified milk and first stage foods should also be fortified with iron.
Some people may not be absorbing enough iron from their food (3). For example, those suffering from intestinal diseases such as Crohn's disease or celiac disease, or have undergone intestinal surgery such as having had a gastric bypass. Furthermore, vegetarians or vegans not eating a carefully balanced diet may find it difficult obtaining enough iron since the amount of iron the body can absorb from plants is lower than for meat.
Symptoms of iron deficiency
Iron deficiency is the main cause of anemia but it is usually easy to correct. Those who are suffering from an iron deficiency can become weak and tired with a poor concentration span. They may also feel cold due to poor circulation and appear pale. Experiencing faintness or suffering from dizzy spells can be a sign of iron deficiency as can brittle nails, shortness of breath and an increased susceptibility to contracting infections.
Good sources of iron
Some foods are particularly good sources of iron. Those which offer the highest amounts of iron include red meat, offal such as kidneys and liver (pregnant women should avoid liver due to the high content of vitamin A), dried fruit, egg yolks, spinach, poultry, sardines, tuna, prawns and pulses including soy, broad beans, kidney beans and chick peas. Fortified bread and cereals provide further good sources of iron.
While iron deficiency is common, in most cases it can be remedied by including more iron rich foods in your diet and eating them with foods rich in vitamin C. If you think you may be iron deficient, for example if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, it's always best to ask your doctor to check your levels. If you are unable to increase your levels with food, a suitable supplement may be suggested.