It’s been estimated that up to 62% of women do not get enough iron in their daily eating and that in the U.S. iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency.
So what’s so great about iron anyway? Well, every living cell in the body contains iron! Iron is a major component of two important proteins: hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is in the red blood cells and carries oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. Myoglobin carries & stores oxygen for the muscles. So essentially iron holds, transports and releases oxygen for the body to use…pretty important, right? Iron is also necessary in order to make new cells, amino acids, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
Only about 10-15% of the dietary iron is absorbed but the rate of absorption increases if the body’s supply is diminished or the body’s need increase (for example, during pregnancy). This balance is upset in case of individuals with iron-deficiency anemia…iron loss or low dietary intake overtakes the rate of absorption, thus one becomes iron deficient. When anemia sets in a person tends to feel extremely tired & cold, they may experience headaches, and they look pale.
Conversely, if the body’s iron stores are filled up the less iron is absorbed. If iron is left free to roam (in the case of non-absorption) it becomes a powerful oxidant that can initiate free radical reactions and cause damage to the body’s cells! Elevated iron stores may thus be related to the development of cardiovascular disease.
So how much iron does a person need? For men and for women past the age of 51…8 mg. For women of childbearing age…18 mg. For women in their 2nd & 3rd trimesters of pregnancy…30 mg. Adult men very rarely experience iron-deficiency anemia. Relying on foods to meet your iron need is best as the iron from foods is better absorbed than that of iron supplements.
Heme & Nonheme Foods
Iron occurs in two forms in food…heme, which is found in meat…and nonheme, which is found in plants & some meats. Heme iron is much more readily absorbed than nonheme iron but when the two are consumed together the absorption of nonheme iron is increased. Eating foods rich in Vitamin C can also triple the amount of iron absorbed from nonheme foods. So, if you’re eating a nonheme source such as spinach…eat a food rich in Vitamin C with it (e.g., citrus fruits).
What Not to Eat
Some substances can impair iron absorption. For example, the calcium and phosphorus in milk, the tannins in tea & coffee, and the phytates that accompany fiber in whole-grain cereals.
Iron Rich Food Sources
- clams (3 oz. provides 23.8 mg!)
- organ meats (liver & giblets)
- soybeans or edamame
- roasted pumpkin seeds & squash seeds
- white beans
- blackstrap molasses
- sesame butter (tahini) and seeds
- sun-dried tomatoes
- sunflower seeds
- dried apricots & peaches
A Note to Vegetarians/Vegans: If you’re not a fan of meat or you are a vegetarian/vegan it is not impossible to obtain iron in your diet! Always make sure to pair your iron-rich, nonheme foods with a good source of Vitamin C. For example, top a spinach salad with sunflower seeds, edamame, and mandarin orange slices.