For over a hundred years, nutrition experts have considered foods high in iron to be required in supplying an essential mineral for our bodies. Iron's primary function within the body is to help both the blood and muscles carry the oxygen that our cells need to be able to use the sugars that "feed" them. Iron also helps the immune system, it helps in brain development, and it's used in the body's temperature regulation.
Our bodies are able to store and reuse most of the iron that we use on a day to day basis, however roughly between 10% and 5% of it is lost each day and much be replentished through our diets. Men are able to store more iron than women, and during pregnancy and menstruation this gap becomes even wider. When we don't consume enough iron in our diets to replace what we lose daily, we will start feeling the effects of an iron deficiency.
How much iron do we need?
The USRDA for iron for women 50 and older and all men is 8 milligrams per day. For women between 18 and 50, the USRDA is 18 milligrams per day. The RDA for Children is 10 milligrams per day.
How can we add iron to our diets?
Iron is found in two forms in the foods that we eat: heme iron from animal tissues (meats), which is readily absorbed by our bodies, and non-heme iron which is primarily the type of iron found in vegetables. Non-heme iron isn't absorbed ad readily ad heme iron - it depends on the body's needs. Vitamin C eaten with a meal will help the absorption of non-heme iron. Tea, coffee, red wine, or an excess of zinc, manganese, or calcium can decrease its absorption.
Refined flours are enriched with iron to replace the iron that's lost during processing. As a result, anything made with these flours becomes an excellent source of iron - these products will be labeled to indicate that they were made with enriched flours. Most ready-to-eat cereals contain at least 25-30% of the RDA for iron.
Prolonged iron deficiency leads to Anemia, which is a condition where both the number of red blood cells and their size is decreased. Anemia results in decreased oxygen in the bloodstream and can cause tiredness, headaches, irritability, and depression. Temporary Anemia can also be caused by heavy blood loss through heavy menses, bleeding ulcers, hemorrhoids, and colon cancer.
On the other hand, too much iron can be toxic, leading to damage of the heart and liver. The body usually does a good job of excreting excess iron, however, it is not recommended that an individual take supplements with high levels of iron.
The best way to ensure that we get enough iron is by eating a balanced diet. Doctors usually only recommend iron supplements to infants and toddlers and pregnant or lactating women. It's important for vegetarians and vegans to consume more iron-rich foods than those who consume meats.
Finally, cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes in iron cookware can also increase the amount of iron in your diet. However, normal cooking usually causes foods to lose some of their iron, therefore it's best to cook foods for the least amount of time with a minimal amount of water.
If your doctor has indicated that you might have a slight deficiency in iron, a little attention to your diet to ensure you are eating enough foods high in iron will usually correct the problem without the need for supplements.
John Roberts is a nutrition researcher who educates the public on the benefits of a healthy diet. Please visit his blog for more articles and further information on balanced nutrition.