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Healthy Foods that Contain Iron
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Jan 05, 2005
Iron is an essential component of hundreds of enzymes and proteins in your body.
As it is with other trace minerals, a little iron goes a long way. More specifically, your body needs about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of iron at any given time to carry out its everyday metabolic activities. Without this 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of iron in your body on a consistent basis, you could experience significant health challenges.
What Does Iron Do In Your Body?
- As a part of the compound heme, iron is needed to carry oxygen to your cells and carbon dioxide away from your cells
- Also as a part of the compound heme, iron contributes to the structure of a protein called myoglobin, which is needed to store and transport oxygen in your muscle cells
- Helps to produce ATP (energy)
- Acts as an antioxidant via specific enzymes (catalase and peroxidases)
- Promotes optimal growth, reproduction, healing, and immune function of all of your cells via an enzyme called ribonucleotide reductase
Put another way, being deficient in iron can cause the following symptoms:
- Rapid heart rate and/or palpitations
- Unusually rapid breathing upon physical exertion
- Spoon-shaped and/or brittle nails
- Inability to stay warm in cold weather
- Impaired mental and motor development in children
- Cravings for non-food items, the most common of which are clay, dirt, cornstarch, and paint chips
- Frequent colds and infections
The following groups of people have a higher-than-average risk of being iron deficient:
- Rapidly growing infants and children, typically between 6 months and 5 years of age.
- Teenagers going through a growth spurt.
- Teenage girls who experience relatively heavy blood loss during menstruation.
- Pregnant women.
- People who are experiencing significant blood loss, acute or chronic.
- Vegans and vegetarians, especially those who eat a lot of whole grains and legumes without soaking them prior
to preparing them to eat.
- People who have gastric bypass surgery.
- People with malabsorption syndromes, such as Celiac or Crohn's disease.
- People who engage in intense exercise on a frequent basis.
There are two different types of iron that you can obtain from food sources: heme iron and nonheme iron.
Heme iron can be obtained mainly from protein found in red meats, white meats, and fish.
Nonheme iron can be obtained from meat, dairy products, plant foods, and iron salts that are sometimes added to various foods.
The following factors can enhance and inhibit the absorption of nonheme iron into your blood:
Factors That Can Enhance Absorption of Nonheme Iron:
- Regular intake of vitamin C
- Intake of red meat, white meat, and fish, which means that these animal foods provide readily absorbed heme iron and enhance the absorption of nonheme iron from various foods into your blood
Factors That Can Inhibit Absorption of Nonheme Iron:
- Regular intake of legumes and grains that contain significant levels of phytic acid (phytic acid can be neutralized by soaking legumes and grains in water for several hours prior to preparing them to eat)
- Soy protein, which can inhibit the absorption of iron through a mechanism that doesn't involve phytic acid
- Polyphenols found in coffee, tea, wine, and some fruits, vegetables, and spices, which can inhibit the absorption of iron (this effect can be mitigated by regular intake of vitamin C)
Though you need both heme and nonheme iron to be optimally healthy, you should know that any excess nonheme iron that enters your digestive tract leaves your body via your stools, whereas excess heme iron (found in animal products) can get stored in your body, where it can generate large quantities of harmful free radicals.
Which healthy foods are reliable sources of iron?
|Whole Food Sources||Serving||Iron (mg)|
|Beef Liver||3 ounces||6.17|
|Lima beans||3 ounces||3.57|
|Potato, with skin||1 medium||2.75|
|Navy beans||3 ounces||2.36|
|Organic beef||3 ounces||2.31|
|Organic chicken||3 ounces||1.13|
|California avocado||1 whole||0.61|
Goji berries are another healthy food source of iron. Goji berries have been measured to have more than 15 times more iron than spinach.
Excess intake of iron has been associated with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, liver cancer, and an increased risk for cornary artery disease. It is therefore best to get your iron from healthy food sources rather than from synthetic supplements.
Here are the US government's recommended daily allowances for iron:
|Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Iron|
|Life Stage||Age||Males (mg/day)||Females (mg/d)|
|Infants||0-6 months||0.27 (Adequate Intake)||0.27 (Adequate Intake)|
|Adults||51 years and older||8||8|
|Breastfeeding||18 years and younger||-||10|
|Breastfeeding||19 years and older||-||9|
If you suspect that you might be deficient in iron, here are some guidelines on how to address your situation:
- Visit your health care provider to rule out blood loss as a potential cause. If your doctor finds that blood loss is not a significant factor for you, she or he may recommend a series of blood tests that can tell you if have iron deficiency anemia. These blood tests include: a complete blood count (CBC), an iron test, a ferritin level test, and a reticulocyte count.
- Adopt good eating habits.
- Consider and address any emotional stressors in your life that may be contributing to an unhealthy digestive tract.
- Regularly eat iron-rich foods.
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