Where to find iron in the diet and reduce deficiencies?
Published 12 Nov 2022 • By Rahul Roy
When we talk about food nutrients to consume for a better health, iron isn’t something that immediately comes to mind. But it is as important as any other nutrients and plays a crucial role in how our body functions.
But what is iron? How does it help our body? What is an iron deficiency? What can we eat to have a healthy iron balance?
We explain it all in our article!
Iron is an important mineral that is necessary for the growth and development of the human body. It is a major component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to different parts of the body, helping us be energetic and active in daily life. Iron is involved in other important body functions such as muscle metabolism and DNA synthesis. It aids the immunity system and also plays a role in hair and skin health. Importantly, iron is crucial for the development stages of the body, and is thus a nutrient of high priority for children and pregnant women.
Although our body can store iron, it cannot create it on its own, which is why we need to consume it within our food. In the UK, adult men and women older than 50 years are recommended to consume 8.7 mg of iron per day, while adult women under 50 years old are advised to aim for 14.8 mg to account for menstruation blood loss.
What happens when the body doesn’t get enough iron?
When the body doesn’t get the required amount of iron, symptoms do not show up immediately but may appear after a long period of iron deficiency, as it may take up to a few months for the body to use up its iron reserves. The main consequence of iron deficiency is a reduction of healthy red blood cells, a condition also called anemia. Red blood cells are responsible for the storage and carriage of oxygen throughout the body, so an insufficient number can prevent our organs from receiving the appropriate level of oxygen. Pregnant women and children are particularly at risk to develop anemia due to their increased iron needs. The main symptoms for iron deficiency and anemia include: -
- Fatigue and Tiredness
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Mouth sores or ulcers
- Brittle nails and hair
How to incorporate iron in the diet?
Thankfully iron is present in a lot of healthy food options and it is easy to incorporate in the diet in daily life practices. Iron is found in food in two forms:
- Haeme iron, found in animal foods such as red meat (e.g. beef, lamb, and pork), offal, poultry, and fish. This type of iron is more easily absorbed by the body during the digestion process.
- Non-haeme iron, found in some plant-based food such as pulses, legumes, dark green vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Here are options from both forms of iron which allow an individual to meet his/her iron needs-
Haeme Iron Food Products
Red Meats and offal
The redder the meat, the higher the iron content. Red meat is also high in protein and zinc and the amount of iron depends on the type of red meat. For example 100 g of beef has about 2.5 mg of iron while the same portion of lamb might be closer to 1.8 mg of iron. In particular, offal parts such as the liver, heart and brain contain seriously high amounts of iron. 100 g of beef liver contains up to 6.5 mg of iron along with all the healthy helping of protein and vitamins. Nonetheless, general dietary guidelines advise limiting the consumption of red and processed meat to 2-3 portions a week, so it is important to rely on other food sources to meet our iron requirements. In addition, offal such as liver should be avoided by pregnant women.
Fish especially shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels are not only high in protein but they are also high in iron. 100 g of clams is estimated to have close to a whopping 3 mg of iron and it also contains other beneficial nutrients for the body
Although not containing the same high amounts as red meats and seafood, poultry meat is still rich in iron and nutrients, with around 1.6 mg of iron per 100 g.
Non-Haeme Iron Food Products
Iron from plant-based food is more difficult for our body to absorb, which can lead to iron deficiencies when following vegan or vegetarian diets. To improve iron absorption and ensure sufficient intake, the best tips include:
- combining a plant-based source of iron with a source of vitamin C, such as salads, fruits, or juices
- Avoid drinking tea or coffee during or after main meals
- Consume a variety of plant-based foods throughout the week
To guide you in your food choices, here is a list of the top iron-rich plant-based foods:
This is a protein and iron- rich non-haeme iron food product that also accounts for very few calories. It is rich in Vitamin C which enhances iron absorption.100 g of spinach contains approximately 2.7 mg of iron and is also quite good for eye health thanks to its antioxidant content.
Legumes and pulses
It is common knowledge that legumes are nutrient powerhouses, however they are also a great source of vegetarian iron. Their consumption is recommended for people with diabetes thanks to their low glycemic index.100 g of lentils is found to provide around 3 mg of iron.
Seeds (Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds)
This is an easy to carry snack that can be eaten at any time. 100 g of pumpkin seeds carry an impressive 3.3 mg of iron. Additionally, they are high in magnesium which may help people with diabetes and depression.
Nuts (cashews, almonds, pistachios)
Many nuts are great sources of iron, especially pistachios which contain a whopping 14 mg of iron per 100 g. They have been suggested to be beneficial for artery health and contain a whole lot of nutrients aside from iron.
This gluten- free grain is high in protein compared to other grains and is rich in anti-oxidants. 100 g of quinoa provides around 1.5 mg of iron and although that may seem less in comparison to other items on the list, it is normally consumed in larger quantities, thus eliminating the deficit.
This popular soy- based food packs a protein punch as well as isoflavones that contribute to heart health. 3 mg of iron from a 100 g serving is a pretty good return for a flavorsome treat that is sure to delight vegetarians and others alike.
Dark chocolate is a delicious way to fill up on that iron requirement while packing an anti-oxidant punch as well. 100 g of 75-80% dark chocolate brings with it nearly 13 mg of iron. The higher the cocoa percentage, the higher the iron content, so unfortunately milk and white chocolates won’t do the trick!
Finally, food supplements are available for people who cannot meet their iron requirements from diet only. However, it is imperative to keep supplements off the hands of children and to consult a healthcare professional before starting a new food supplement regimen. High doses of iron supplements, especially on an empty stomach, can cause abdominal pain, nausea and constipation. They can also interfere with other medication, so they must be handled with adequate care and attention. Consuming too much iron can lead to iron poisoning, which can be life threatening depending on the amount of iron consumed.
It is easy to overlook the importance of iron, but it remains a crucial part of the diet. Incorporating it into our daily meals contributes to a healthy and balanced diet, and thankfully there are a great deal of choices available to help us meet the required quota. Iron out the iron deficiencies to Fe-el and live healthier!
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