Iron is a vitally important mineral, but many people – especially women – don’t meet their iron needs.
Iron is the most abundant mineral on earth – and one that nourishes nearly all life on the planet. Plants need iron to make chlorophyll, which allows the plant to convert energy from the sun into energy for the plant and, in humans, iron is found in every cell of the body. Yet for all its abundance, many of us don’t get enough iron in the diet. In fact, lack of iron is among the most common nutritional deficiencies worldwide, including in the United States.
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Iron’s number one job in the body is to transport oxygen from the lungs to all the cells and tissues of the body – iron makes up part of the hemoglobin molecule in the blood (and the myoglobin protein in muscle) that performs this function. But equally important is iron’s role in helping to extract energy from your food. So, when you consider these two key functions of iron, it makes sense that if you don’t get enough iron in your diet, you might feel your energy flagging.
In general, women are more likely to experience a lack of iron than men, and this is due partly to differences in diet, and also the fact that women of childbearing age experience iron losses through their monthly menstrual cycles, and also experience increased needs during pregnancy. And, since the mineral is necessary for growth and development, shortages may occur among growing children and teenagers (especially girls).
With careful attention to diet, however, most people can meet their body’s needs for this important mineral. Here are four things you should know about iron.
- If you associate dietary iron with foods like red meat, you’d be right. Animal proteins – like meat and poultry – are the primary sources of iron in a typical diet. This form of iron is called “heme” iron, and it is generally better absorbed than the iron found in plant foods.
- But, that doesn’t mean vegetarians can’t get enough iron. A different form of iron, called “non-heme” iron is found in plant sources, such as beans, lentils, oatmeal, nuts and leafy greens, as well as some fortified grain products (like cereals) and eggs.
- Vitamin C greatly enhances the body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron from plant sources. Vegetarians generally eat plenty of fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamin C, which helps explain how some vegetarians are able to meet their iron needs with a well-balanced diet. For instance, a vegetarian chili with beans and tomatoes, the Vitamin C in the tomatoes would help the body absorb the iron from the beans.
- Your body is able to adjust how much iron you take up, depending on your needs. When iron stores are waning, your body becomes more efficient at absorbing it. On the other hand, if you’ve got plenty of iron on hand, you’ll take up less.
Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.