Anemia, the most common micro-nutrient deficiency, affects a large number of children and women in the industrialized and developing countries. Low iron levels are the main causative factor for this condition characterized by muscle weakness and fatigue. The body makes its own iron, but the amount is not sufficient and hence it needs to be supplemented externally.
This article discusses all you need to know about the health-essential mineral iron – its benefits, recommended intake and food sources.
The Benefits of Iron
Red Blood Cell Production
The body needs iron to produce quality red blood cells. In its absence, the body is unable to make an adequate amount of red blood cells. Additionally, the ones that are produced are not very healthy and therefore, fail to function efficiently. Including iron in your diet protects against and prevents anemia.
Hemoglobin, the iron-containing protein, is responsible for transporting oxygen across the entire body. It also circulates other nutrients to the different organs. Not getting enough iron affects how your body transports oxygen to the brain and the muscles. You experience fatigue and weakness, increased irritability, inability to concentrate, unhealthy hair and brittle nails.
Supports a Healthy Pregnancy
Pregnant women need a higher intake of iron for proper fetal development. Along with food sources, pregnant women are prescribed a prenatal vitamin to fulfill the requirement.
Iron makes available oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus. A deficiency during gestation increases the chances of low birth weight and premature deliveries. It might also affect cognitive and behavioral development in infants.
Iron plays a vital role in the development of the brain. Not only this, by supplying oxygen to the brain, it is responsible for brain health and function. When the brain does not receive enough oxygen supply, the outcome is a weak memory, poor concentration, decreased productivity, low spirits, unexplained irritability and restlessness.
Iron is also a primary component of myoglobin. Its function is to hold oxygen in the muscles. During exercise or physical activity, the muscles release oxygen helping them contract and repair. Lack of iron causes muscle weakness and thereby affects physical performance.
Natural Sources of Iron
- Nuts, seeds and beans: White beans, lima beans, soy beans, kidney beans, almonds, cashew nuts, legumes, cereals, prunes
- Leafy greens: Spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, collard greens and artichokes, kale and a few varieties of seaweeds.
- Whole grains: Oats, wheat (most grains are fortified with iron)
- Vegetables: Tomatoes, potatoes, beetroots, asparagus
- Fruit: Blueberries, purple grapes, plums
- Seafood: Clams, oysters, shrimp, salmon, cod, tuna
- Meat: Beef liver, ground beef
- Poultry: Eggs yolk, chicken liver, turkey and duck
- Dairy: Tofu
Iron absorption is highest from meat; hence vegetarians need to have a higher intake. Vitamin C, taken in conjunction with iron, increases absorption. On the contrary, an excess of calcium blocks iron absorption.