Iron is a very important mineral and is essential for the normal functioning of our body. It ensures the development of blood cells called Hemoglobins which play the role of an oxygen transporter and carrier. That is why this mineral is mostly found in Hemoglobins and Myoglobins (the muscle cells). However, all our cells contain some iron.
Types of iron
There are two types of iron, Heme and nonheme iron.
Heme iron is found in animal protein like beef, poultry, and fish. Red meat and organs are very good sources of heme. Heme iron is easily absorbed by your body and bioavailable. Its bioactivity is about 25%.
Nonheme iron, on the other hand, is found in plant sources like nuts, legumes, and leafy green vegetables. But this form is hard to absorb, and its bioactivity is about 5-10%.
Note: Vegans are more at risk to get anemia because of the weak absorption of nonheme iron.
The infamous Anemia
Ferritin is a protein that stores the iron and releases it when needed.
When the body does not have enough iron, a deficiency occurs called “Anemia” . When you have this condition, the production of Hemoglobins decreases, and oxygen transportation is not done properly, leading to our organism and cells not receiving enough oxygen.
Anemia has become very common, especially for women. Pregnant and athletic women, also women who follow a vegan diet are at high risk to develop Anemia. Besides, we need more iron as we lose an undeniable quantity of blood during menstruation.
In fact, women generally suffer more from Anemia caused by inadequate and poor dietary iron intake, blood loss after giving birth, heavy menstrual bleeding, and absorption problems.
Main symptoms of anemia
Anemia symptoms can go unnoticed at first, but by the time your body becomes more deficient in Iron, the intensity of the symptoms increases.
As a result of not getting enough oxygen due to lack of Hemoglobin, your body will eventually get weaker, you will feel some fatigue, pale skin, dizziness, brittle nails, irregular heartbeat, headaches.
A heavy menstrual period, characterized by more blood loss or long days of menstruation that goes over 7 days along with painful menstrual cramps, can also be a real sign of Anemia, especially if combined with the other symptoms.
Iron in naturally available in foods, so why are we deficient?
If iron deficiency is caused by inadequate or poor iron intake, it’s usually linked to some food associations that can hinder or inhibit the proper absorption of iron.
This includes calcium-rich food, the introduction of iron with calcium may affect its absorption. Therefore, to have better iron absorption we should not eat high calcium food in meals that provide our dietary need of iron.
Phytate is another hinder that we should be aware of; a small amount can decrease iron absorption found in cereals, whole grains, soy, nuts, and legumes.
Polyphenol can significantly reduce iron absorption too. It is found in vegetables, some cereals, fruits, and legumes, but most abundantly in coffee and tea.
These latter contain high amounts of Polyphenol, which essentially inhibits the absorption of non-heme iron. Drinking tea or coffee between meals or during them will result in a bad absorption of iron.
Subsequently, foods that contain polyphenol should be consumed at least a couple of hours after eating a meal rich in iron, or consume them before it.
For better iron absorption
Some nutrients can enhance the absorption ability of iron:
Vitamin C can increase iron absorption, especially when it is nonheme iron. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, dark green leaf, and most vegetables.
Vitamin A and Beta-carotene also boost the absorption of iron. Your body can turn beta-carotene into vitamin A, present in carrots, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes…
Animal sources like meat, poultry, and fish not only provide heme iron that is easily absorbed, but it also helps to improve the absorption of non-heme iron thanks to the protein their meat contains.
Note: Vitamin C is affected by heat, and can lose its benefits and effect on non-heme iron if not kept at a cool temperature.
Adult women (19-50 years) need 18 mg per day, a quantity higher than what is needed by men who only need 8 mg. Women during pregnancy need 27 mg, and during lactation need 9-10 mg. Teenage girls between 14 and 18 years old also need more iron than boys, i.e. about 15 mg per day.
Some natural sources of iron
The richest sources of heme iron are Organ meats, Shellfish, and Red meat.
Lamb or chicken liver: 100g = 8-13 mg
Lamb’s kidney: 100 g = 12 mg
Beef liver: 100 g = 6-8 mg
Oyster: 100 g = 5-9 mg
Shrimp: 100 g = 2-3 mg
Turkey: 100 g = 1.4 mg
Canned tuna: 85 mg g = 1.4 mg
Tofu: 100 g = 6 mg
Pumpkin seeds: 30 g = 3 mg
Lentils: 100 g = 3.5 mg
Spinach: 100 g = 3 mg
White beans: 100 g = 2 mg
Quinoa: 100 g = 2 mg
Dark chocolate: 30 g = 3 mg
Like it is the case for all vitamins and minerals, it is always better to consume iron from natural sources as they are pretty available and can cover our daily needs.
However, supplementation is required in certain cases or in case of anomaly. But you should make sure you control the dosage and consult a doctor regarding the length of the period of supplementation. Otherwise, taking high doses for a long period can lead to cell damage due to an accumulation of free Iron.