Steve Bui, M.S.
Iron is one of the most essential minerals to health; unfortunately, sometimes we neglect its importance. What makes iron so important? As a major component of red blood cells, it aids in transporting oxygen throughout the body. It can also play minor roles in liver function, prevention of bacterial infections, and cell growth. Iron deficiency can occur with heavy loss of blood, lack of dietary intake, and the inability to absorb iron metabolically. Iron deficiencies appear most often in women (even more so during pregnancy), vegetarians, and athletes.
Anemia, the most common consequence of iron deficiency, is a condition in which the body does not have or produce enough healthy red blood cells. Without iron, the body naturally produces fewer red blood cells, or the red blood cells become too small to function properly. Mild, early signs of anemia may include: fatigue, moodiness, inability to concentrate, and headaches. In more severe cases, brittle nails, pale skin, and blue color to the white of the eyes may appear. Getting proper amounts of iron through the diet is the best preventive tool in preventing iron deficiency anemia. Dietary iron can be found in both animal and plant foods. Foods with the highest iron content are meat-related sources, with absorption rates generally around 10-20%. Plant foods high in iron include spinach, kale, other dark leafy vegetables, soybeans, oatmeal, raisins, prunes, and apricots, although absorption rates are a bit lower than meat at approximately 1-10%. Certain other vitamins and minerals help increase iron absorption, such as vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, tomatoes has been shown to greatly increase the absorption of iron. Iron supplementation is recommended if proper iron levels cannot be met through the diet alone.
It must be noted that iron toxicity, while rare, can occur. Iron is not easily secreted by the body; therefore, excessive iron intake or supplementation can lead to buildup in the organs and further complications. Many times iron supplementation is recommended in conjunction with a meal since high iron oral supplementation may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea on an empty stomach. Iron deficiency can be problematic for many individuals and can cause serious side effects; however, with proper dieting and supplementation (if need be), it can be easily remedied and treated.
Oski, F. “Iron Deficiency in Infancy and Childhood.” The New England Journal of Medicine. July 15, 1993.