Iron - Everything You Need To Know

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Iron may be a metal, but it's one that we need to live. In fact, iron is an essential nutrient, not just for humans, but for most life forms on Earth. It's so important, many foods are actually fortified with iron to ensure that we get enough each day. When an individual gets too much or too little iron in their diet, the side effects can be severe. Read this article to find out more about what iron does and how you can ensure that you are getting enough in your daily diet.

What Does Iron Do?

The majority of the body's iron can be found in the hemoglobin, which is the protein in red blood cells. Hemoglobin needs this mineral in order to sufficiently carry out its responsibilities, particularly to get enough oxygen to the various tissues in the body. Iron can also be found in the myoglobin, which helps to provide oxygen for muscles. In general, the main function of iron is oxygen transport, which is essential for normal human physiology.

Iron can also be found in enzymes, meaning this mineral is also necessary to regulate biochemical reactions, and plays a crucial role in cell growth and differentiation. Furthermore, iron helps to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body's main energy source. Therefore, iron does play a part in several other body functions in addition to its main job of transporting oxygen.

Food Sources of Iron

Iron is readily available in many common foods. However, these foods do not all contain the same type of iron. Iron in food is either heme or non-heme. The heme iron is easier to digest, while non-heme iron may be a little more difficult for the body to process. Fortunately, certain nutrients like vitamin C can help the body to digest and absorb non-heme iron. However, some foods, including dairy products, bran and tea, can actually block the absorption of non-heme iron.

Heme iron is most common in meat sources. One of the best sources of heme iron is actually chicken liver. Several other meats like beef, turkey and pork, are also good sources of heme iron. For additional sources of this type of iron, try seafood dishes like oysters, clams, tuna, halibut, crab or shrimp as these are all rich in heme iron as well.

Non-heme iron is found in mostly plants sources such as soybeans, lentils, beans, spinach, black-eyed peas, almonds, broccoli, asparagus, kale, kidney beans and dried fruits. Many foods that are iron-fortified or iron-enriched are also good sources of non-heme iron like white bread, ready-to-eat cereals and oatmeal. Be sure to check packaging carefully since not all of these foods are necessarily fortified with iron.

Side Effects

When the proper amount of iron is consumed each day through a balanced diet, there are rarely any side effects associated with iron. An individual is much more likely to experience side effects if they are taking an iron supplement, so it's important to consult a physician before adding extra iron to your diet. Symptoms that may accompany an iron supplement include upset-stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation or heartburn. Additionally, certain medications like antacids, ACE inhibitors, allopurinol, anti-inflammatory drugs, tetracyclines and birth control drugs, may have negative side effects when combined with iron supplements. Talk to you doctor if you are taking any of these prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs.

Deficiency Symptoms

Iron deficiency is a serious problem in today's world. In fact, the World Health Organization has labeled iron deficiency as the number one nutritional disorder in the world, with as many as 80 percent of the world's population being potentially iron deficient. When iron deficiency first occurs, the body begins to use stored iron to replace what is missing. However, once that reserve is depleted, symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, irritability and weight loss typically develop.

Certain groups are more at risk for developing iron deficiency, such as people with: kidney failure, gastrointestinal conditions or ulcers. Additionally, certain lifestyle changes or choices can put an individual at risk for developing an iron deficiency. For example, long-distance runners, strict vegetarians or vegans and pregnant women are all at a higher risk for developing this condition. Fortunately, simple diet changes can usually counteract this increased risk.

Daily Dosage Recommendations

Unlike many other nutrients and minerals, the recommended daily consumption for iron does not simply increase as a person gets older. In fact, the daily dosage recommendation for iron fluctuates according to both age and sex. Babies who are 7 to 12 months old should consume 11 milligrams (mg) of iron each day; children ages 1 to 3 should have seven mg daily; ages 4 to 8, 10 mg a day; and ages 9 to 13, eight mg a day.

Once a child reaches their teen years, their recommended iron intake changes according to their sex. Men ages 14 to 18 should have 11 mg a day, after which their recommended daily intake stays at eight mg for the rest of their lives. Women, on the other hand, should have 15 mg a day from ages 14 to 18; from ages 19 to 50, they should have 18 mg a day; and eight mg a day from age 51 and on.

There are exceptions to these recommendations, particularly for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and for individuals in any of the at-risk groups noted above. Talk to you doctor if you think you may need to take iron pills to supplement your dietary intake.

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