Mineral Spotlight: Iron

November 17, 2020

How much do you know about iron?

Iron’s main role in the body is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of our red blood cells. Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that transfers oxygen from the lungs to all the body’s tissues, thus allowing our body to produce energy.  It also works to return carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. Iron is essential to these processes as well as to the process of making myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles.  Other important roles that iron plays in the body include changing beta-carotene to vitamin A, producing collagen, helping to make amino acids, aiding in brain development, and supporting a healthy immune system.  Clearly, iron’s roles are many and varied and since our bodies are highly adaptive, we absorb more iron when our stores of it are low and less when they are higher.  That said, it is important to know just how much iron we should be aiming to consume.  While a lack of iron can leave someone feeling sluggish, tired, weak, forgetful, or unable to concentrate or perform at their peak efficiency, too much iron is also harmful.  Iron toxicity is a dangerous, sometimes fatal, condition, particularly in children, so paying close attention to intake amounts is important.

Below is a table showing the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for iron depending on gender, age, and life stage.

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Iron
AgeMaleFemalePregnancyLactation
Birth to 6 months0.27 mg*0.27 mg*
7–12 months11 mg11 mg
1–3 years7 mg7 mg
4–8 years10 mg10 mg
9–13 years8 mg8 mg
14–18 years11 mg15 mg27 mg10 mg
19–50 years8 mg18 mg27 mg9 mg
51+ years8 mg8 mg
* Adequate Intake (AI)

Source: Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2001.

Having established how much we need to consume on a daily basis when it comes to iron, we now need to discuss what to eat to best reach those consumption goals. First off, it’s important to know that there are two kinds of iron in food: heme and non-heme iron. 

Heme iron is that which you get from animal sources (meat, poultry, fish) and it is the most readily absorbed by our bodies.  That said, for vegetarians or people dealing with certain medical conditions, getting heme iron from meat isn’t always an option.  For instance, those suffering from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) often avoid red meat as it can induce inflammation and aggravate the gastrointestinal system. In cases such as these, fish and poultry are more readily tolerated and thus, would be good sources of heme iron. When it comes to seafood, shellfish are a particularly good source of heme iron, with three standouts being mussels, clams, and oysters. 

Our bodies can also use non-heme iron, though it is not as readily bioavailable as the iron from animal sources. Non-heme iron comes mostly from plant sources. Some of the foods richest in non-heme iron are: fortified breakfast cereals (check the nutrition label), spinach, prune juice, wheat bran, legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, soybeans), pretzels, enriched breads or rice, dried apricots, raisins, eggs, and peanut butter.  The key thing with non-heme iron is that there are ways to make it more available for your body to absorb, which is particularly important for vegetarians.  Combining it with a source of vitamin C or heme iron will actually help your body absorb more from the non-heme source.  For example, making a spinach salad and adding strawberries or mandarin oranges will help get more iron out of the spinach than just eating the spinach alone.  Also, adding grilled chicken or steak (heme sources) to a spinach salad would allow the body to more readily use the non-heme iron from the spinach. Other great options are combining things like whole wheat pasta or legumes (non-heme iron sources) with red bell peppers (a vitamin C source).

One last recommendation for those who need to increase iron consumption is to try  cooking with a cast iron skillet.  This adds a bit of iron to anything you put in it. If you like eggs, try scrambled eggs or an omelet cooked in a cast iron skillet.

No matter if you are a highly trained athlete, a stay-at-home mom, a weekend warrior, or a person suffering from chronic disease, getting the right amount of iron in your diet is important.  If you have any concerns regarding your current iron status, make sure to make an appointment with your doctor to have your bloodwork checked.  If you discover that you are, indeed, in need of increased iron levels, grab the phone or shoot me an email and let’s find a time to discuss getting you on the path to peak efficiency!

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