Besides being one of the most abundant metals on Earth, Iron is an important dietary mineral that is critical to human health. It is known as one of the essential minerals.
Iron is a important part or many proteins and enzymes in your body. Iron is essential to the differentiation of cells and their growth. It is very important to the proteins that are involved in oxygen transport within your body.
In fact, almost 70% of the iron in your body is found in hemoglobin. That is the protein found in your red blood cells that carries the oxygen to your body's tissues. Without the proper amount of iron in your system, oxygen supplies for your tissues, muscles and cells will be limited. This iron deficiency can result in fatigue, poor performance, and a decrease in your immune functions.
Food such as meat is usually high in iron. The iron found in meats is in the form of Heme Iron. This is the iron that comes from the hemoglobin and is found in foods from animals (meats) that had hemoglobin, or blood, in them. Heme Iron is absorbed better than the other type - nonheme iron.
Nonheme Iron is found in foods from plant sources and from most iron fortified foods or supplements. Beans and lentils are good sources of nonheme iron.
Iron absorption is affected by several factors. If the body's stores of iron are low it will automatically try to absorb more and if they are high it will slow absorption. Iron at high levels can be toxic so this is your body's way of trying to protect itself.
Meat along with Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron while things like calcium, phytates and tannins (found in tea) will decrease the absorption especially of the nonheme type.
The required daily intake of iron varies and depends on both age and gender. Up to the teenage years and puberty, both boys and girls need the same amounts of iron. This happens again after around the age of 50.
When girls become women and start having a menstrual cycle until menopause their iron requirements increase. This is because most of the body's iron is found in the blood. Also iron requirements increase during pregnancy and even for vegetarians since the nonheme (plant form of) iron is not absorbed as well.
Vegetarians should also be aware of the foods that inhibit absorption of nonheme iron such as tea and phytates that are found in legumes and whole grains.
Women of child bearing age and vegetarians might consider taking a iron enriched multivitamin to be sure they have adequate supplies. Also those individuals who don't eat sufficient food that is nutritionally dense might also consider iron supplementation. Poor nutrition foods include things like sugar sweetened drinks, deserts, chips and many processed snack foods. These are all high in calories but low in vitamins and minerals.
Worldwide, iron deficiency is considered the number one nutritional disorder. As much as 80% of the world's population may be iron deficient with 30% having anemia.
This is caused by both low intakes of iron and poor absorption of the iron that is available. Women of childbearing age, pregnant women, infants and teenage girls have the greatest risk of developing iron deficient anemia because they have higher needs for iron. Adult men and post menopausal women lose very little iron and therefore have little risk of being iron deficient.
As I mentioned above, these high risk groups should be conscious of eating more iron rich foods or supplementing their diet. Consuming heme iron, the type found in meat, will increase absorption. Vegetarians need to eat as much as 2 times the amount of dietary iron as people who consume meat in order to absorb the required amount. Vitamin C can improve the absorption of nonheme iron.
Adult men and postmenopausal women should avoid taking iron supplements to avoid toxic iron overload. Eating a normal diet will not cause this group to get too much iron as the body will slow absorption if the iron in the body is in adequate supply.