My clients often ask me what the best food sources of iron are and whether they should be taking any supplementation.
Iron is an essential trace mineral that is needed for the transport of oxygen and for the metabolism of energy nutrients. It is a perfect example of the principle that both too little and too much of a nutrient in the body can be harmful. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, affecting more than 1.6 billion people around the world.
Iron absorption, and the conserving of iron reserves, depends in part on where you get it from. It’s found in two forms: heme iron, which is found only in foods derived from the flesh of animals (meats, poultry and fish), and non-heme iron, which is found in both plant-derived and animal-derived foods.
Around 25 percent of heme iron and 17 percent of non-heme iron is absorbed, depending on dietary factors and on the body’s existing iron stores.
The absorption rates are considerably lower in a vegetarian diet, as the foods most often consumed will inhibit iron absorption. So if you are vegetarian, then you must be sure you’re are getting enough iron. Some examples of good vegetarian iron sources include phytates (legumes, grains and rice), vegetable proteins (soybeans, legumes, nuts), calcium (milk), and tannic acid (together with other polyphenols in tea and coffee).
People at the highest risk of iron deficiency include women in their reproductive years and pregnant women, as well as children. There is also a potential association between iron deficiency and obesity, because the inflammation that develops with excess body fat can reduce iron absorption.
Most of the iron in your body is found in two proteins: hemoglobin in the red blood cells, and myoglobin in the muscle cells. And the body conserves iron — since it is difficult to excrete iron once it is in the body, balance is maintained mainly through absorption. More iron is absorbed when your body’s stores are empty and less is absorbed when stores are full.
There are many illnesses, conditions and medications that can lead to iron deficiencies. Symptoms of iron deficiency can include weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, cold hands and feet, headaches, fast or irregular heartbeat and many more.
Some of the signs and symptoms of iron overload are similar to iron deficiency, and include a higher risk of diabetes, liver cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.
The recommended daily iron intake is 8mg for men and 18mg for women. If you’re following a vegetarian diet then the recommended levels increase to 14mg for men and 32mg for women.
I recommend definitely getting correct blood tests done before you consider taking any iron supplementation. And you should be careful if you are taking multivitamins, to be sure you know how much iron you are consuming. So before making any changes, please ask your physician.
Ayda Ersoy is a nutrition and fitness director at The Diet Doc Hawaii. She can be reached at DietDocHawaii.com, Ayda@DietDocHawaii.com or (808) 276-6892