Why Iron Matters: Getting Enough for Your Body’s Health

Iron Health Benefits

Iron is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in maintaining good health. It is responsible for transporting oxygen to all parts of the body and helps in the production of red blood cells. Iron deficiency can lead to a range of health problems, including anaemia, fatigue, and weakened immunity. In this context, understanding the importance of iron in our diet is crucial for leading a healthy life.

The Importance of Iron

Haemoglobin and Oxygen Transport

Iron is a crucial mineral that our bodies need for various functions. It helps produce haemoglobin, which carries oxygen and removes waste gases from our bodies.

Muscle Health and Energy Production

Iron also affects muscle health, energy production, and enzyme function. 

Around 65% of the body’s iron is found in haemoglobin in red blood cells, 25% is stored as readily available iron, and the remaining 15% is bound to myoglobin in muscle tissue and various enzymes that are important for cell functions and metabolism.

Iron Deficiency

If you have an iron deficiency, you may be more vulnerable to infections. Iron deficiency anaemia is a severe form of iron deficiency. Symptoms include heart palpitations, brittle nails, hair thinning, itchy skin (pruritus), and mouth sores or ulcers.

Dietary Sources of Iron

To ensure a good iron intake, it’s important to include foods rich in this mineral in our diet. 

Good dietary sources of iron include shellfish, red meats, sardines, wheat germ, wholemeal bread, egg yolk, green vegetables, and dried fruit. 

Iron Fortification

Iron fortification is a common method used to increase iron intake in the UK population. The addition of iron to white and brown wheat flour, as well as infant formulas and follow-on milk, is mandatory in the UK. Some other foods are also fortified voluntarily.

However, evidence suggests that fortified foods have little practical use in improving iron status in the UK. [1]

In the UK, white and brown flour is fortified with iron by law, with a minimum requirement of 16.5 mg iron/kg flour. 

Iron Health Benefits

Types of Dietary Iron

There are two types of iron in food: haem and non-haem.

Haem iron comes from animal sources, and non-haem iron comes from plant sources and enriched cereals. Haem iron is found exclusively in animal flesh, such as meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-haem iron is found in plant-based foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens.

Our bodies absorb haem iron more efficiently (2-3 times) through a specific receptor.

Read more about iron here.

Absorption and Factors Affecting Iron Uptake

What are some iron absorption inhibitors that can affect iron uptake in the body?

    • Did you know that certain foods can make it harder for your body to absorb iron? For example, plant-based diets containing phytate or drinks like tea and coffee that have polyphenols can inhibit iron absorption. Even calcium and some proteins from animals and plants can make it harder for your body to absorb iron. Oxalic acid, which is found in spinach, chard, beans, and nuts, can also hinder iron absorption.
    • When it comes to absorbing iron, vitamin C is your best friend! It can help your body absorb more iron from your food, even when there are other substances that might normally inhibit absorption. This is especially true if you eat a meal with lots of veggies that contain non-heme iron. Vitamin C works by forming a bond with the iron in your stomach, which helps it stay dissolved and available for absorption in the small intestine. [2]

    Deficiency Risks and Vulnerable Groups

    Certain groups of people are more vulnerable to iron deficiency, including vegetarians, those with limited red meat consumption, and individuals who have a high intake of iron absorption inhibitors like phytates. 

    Phytates are natural compounds found in many plant-based foods, such as grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

    Additionally, there are specific populations that are at increased risk of iron deficiency anaemia: 

      • Women who menstruate, particularly if menstrual periods are heavy
      • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or those who have recently given birth
      • People who have undergone major surgery or physical trauma
      • People with gastrointestinal diseases such as celiac disease (sprue), inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis, or Crohn disease
      • People with peptic ulcer disease
      • People who have undergone bariatric procedures, especially gastric bypass operations
      • Vegetarians, vegans, and other people whose diets do not include iron-rich foods (Iron from vegetables, even those that are iron-rich, is not absorbed as well as iron from meat, poultry, and fish).
      • Children who drink more than 500ml a day of cow’s milk (Cow’s milk not only contains little iron, but it can also decrease absorption of iron and irritate the intestinal lining causing chronic blood loss). [3]

      To ensure adequate iron intake, it’s important to include a variety of iron-rich foods in our meals and consider supplements when necessary.

      If you belong to one of these vulnerable groups or have concerns about your iron levels, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice. Please ask your GP for a blood test to check your iron levels. 

      By prioritizing iron-rich foods and taking necessary steps, we can support our overall health and well-being.


      Sources

      1. Hurrell, R. F. (2002). Fortification: Overcoming Technical and Practical Barriers. The Journal of Nutrition, 132(4), 806S-812S. ISSN 0022-3166. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/132.4.806S.
      2. Ems T, St Lucia K, Huecker MR. Biochemistry, Iron Absorption. [Updated 2023 Apr 17]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448204
      3. https://www.hematology.org/education/patients/anemia/iron-deficiency 




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