How can we obtain it through our diet?
There are a number of minerals that are important for our health and iron is certainly one of them. Iron deficiency is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world. Women are particularly at risk of having low body stores of iron as a result of losses caused by menstruation.
Iron carries out a number of important functions in the body. It is required to make haemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells that is needed for transporting oxygen around the body. It is also required to produce myoglobin, which is needed to transport oxygen to muscles. In addition, iron is important for maintaining a healthy immune system, which is paramount nowadays!
Iron also helps with cognitive function and contributes to energy-yielding metabolism. It contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, which is something that a lot of us would be grateful for in our busy lives!
Mild iron deficiency can often result in feelings of tiredness, a lack of energy and increased susceptibility to infections. Severe iron deficiency causes iron deficiency anaemia and results indifferent side effects, such as thinning hair or mouth ulcers in some cases.
Clearly, it plays a number of important roles for our health… so how can we obtain iron through our diet?
Iron is present in many foods but in varying amounts. There are two different forms of iron found in food, called “haem iron” and “non-haem iron”.
Haem iron is more easily absorbed in the body and is mainly found in animal foods. Red meat, such as beef, pork or lamb, are very rich sources, while poultry and fish also provide some haem iron. Liver is a particularly high source of the mineral.
Non-haem iron is mainly found in plant foods and is not absorbed as easily as haem iron. Our bodies can only absorb about 5-15% of this form of iron. Sources of non-haem iron include beans, peas, lentils, tofu, green vegetables (e.g. broccoli and spinach),bread, eggs, nuts and seeds. Certain breakfast cereals are also fortified with iron.
Furthermore, a number of different factors can increase or decrease the amount of iron that our bodies can absorb.
Factors that Aid Absorption
- Eating sources of haem iron and non-haem iron together in the same meal can improve the absorption of the non-haem iron. For example, eating chicken and leafy green vegetables in the same meal may help to increase the amount of iron absorbed from the vegetables.
- Soaking nuts and seeds before eating them can improve the absorption of nutrients.
- Vitamin C can enhance iron absorption. Vitamin C can be found in numerous different fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes and peppers. Consuming vitamin C at the same time as a source of non-haem iron can aid the absorption of the non-haem iron. For example, adding red peppers to an omelette can increase the amount of non-haem iron in the egg that is absorbed by the body.
Factors that Inhibit Absorption
- Tannic acid is present in tea and coffee and can bind to iron, reducing the amount that can be absorbed. To prevent this from happening, try to avoid consuming these drinks at mealtimes and instead consume them a little while before or after eating.