Nutrition 101: Iron

For the next segment of my Nutrition 101 series, I thought I would chat about something that most people will have thought about before. Especially for women, iron is an important nutrient that we must ensure we consume enough of. Personally, I’ve had anaemia before, so I take the importance of iron, iron-rich foods and even iron supplements very seriously.

If you’re looking for some general information about it, hopefully this post will be a helpful starting point for you 🙂

What is iron and why do we need it?

Iron is a mineral that has many different roles within the body. Its main purpose is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body so cells can produce energy. Iron is also an essential component in many enzyme reactions, helping to maintain the health of immune cells, therefore having an important role in supporting the immune system.

What happens if we don’t get enough?

Iron deficiencies occur when a lack of dietary iron results in depleted iron stores in the body. Mild anaemia symptoms often include tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath and sometimes an increased risk of infection. More severe iron deficiency symptoms include heart palpitations, brittle nails, itchy skin and mouth ulcers.

Population groups that are more at risk of iron deficiency are woman of a childbearing age and teenage girls (those that have a regular monthly cycle).

How much should we consume?

Many nutrient requirements change throughout our lifespan and iron is no exception. Not only are there different requirements at different ages, requirements also change between genders.

The British Dietetics Association’s recommendations for daily iron intake are below. (Keep in mind that these are just guidelines and they vary in different countries).

Infants:

0-3 months – 1.7mg

4-6 months – 4.3mg

7-12months – 7.8mg

Children:

1-3 years – 6.9mg

4-6 years – 6.1mg

7-10 years – 8.7mg

Adolescents:

11-18 years – 14.8mg (girls) & 11.3mg (boys)

Adults:

19-50 years – 14.8mg (women) & 8.7mg (men)

50+ years – 8.7mg

green leafed plant

What foods contain iron?

There are two main sources of dietary iron: heme iron (which is found in animal-based foods) and non-heme iron (which is found in plant-based foods). Heme iron is the most bioavailable form of iron which can be found in beef, pork, lamb, liver, sausages and eggs. Some fish including mackerel, tinned tuna and prawns also contain small amounts. Non-heme iron is the predominant source in our diets through foods such as baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, tofu, figs, almonds, brazil nuts, peanut butter, sesames seeds, sunflower seeds and green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.

However, as with quite a lot of other nutrients, the absorption of iron in the foods you eat can be supressed by other foods you consume. For instance, caffeine found in coffee, soda and tea can reduce the amount of iron you actually utilise from an otherwise iron-rich food. Vitamin C on the otherhand helps iron be transported and utilised more easily.

Should you be supplementing?

If you eat a varied diet and don’t restrict yourself from animal products containing iron, there is a chance you are getting enough iron through your diet. My tip is try and eat as much variety as possible and don’t skip out on the dark leafy greens, pulses, nuts, seeds and organic beef.

However, if you are a woman who is menstruating and possibly not eating meat or an overall balanced diet, you may be in danger of iron deficiency. My recommendation is to get some routine blood work done when you’re next at your doctor’s just to see what your levels are. If they are low, your doctor will most likely suggest some quality iron supplements for you to take.

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