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Understanding iron: A vital nutrient for optimal health

Food sources of iron

Iron is an essential mineral that plays a crucial role in our overall health and wellbeing. About one third of the world’s population is iron deficient. But how do you know if you are getting enough iron and if you are deficient?

Why do we need iron?

Iron is a vital component of haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. It is essential for providing energy for daily life. Iron also plays a role in various bodily functions, including immune system support, cognition and is needed for muscle function and physical performance. Without adequate iron, our bodies cannot produce enough healthy red blood cells, leading to fatigue, weakness and other aneamic symptoms.

Actions of iron in the body

  • Oxygen transport: Iron is a key component of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen to tissues and organs.

  • Energy production: Iron is involved in the conversion of food into energy.

  • Immune function: Iron supports the immune system by helping white blood cells destroy pathogens.

  • Cognitive function: Iron is essential for brain development and function, particularly in children.

Food sources of iron

Iron is available in two forms in food: haeme and non-haeme iron. Haeme iron, found in animal products, is more easily absorbed by the body, while non-haeme iron, found in plant-based foods, is absorbed less efficiently.

Haeme iron sources: Red meat, poultry, fish and shellfish.

Non-haeme iron sources: Legumes (beans, lentils), tofu, spinach, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.

How do you know if you are getting enough iron?

If you suspect you are not getting enough iron, it is important to evaluate your diet and consider iron-rich foods or supplements. Blood tests can confirm your iron levels and guide appropriate dietary adjustments.

Signs of iron deficiency

Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath, dizziness, cold hands and feet, weakness, decreased immunity, brittle nails and cravings for non-nutritive substances like ice or dirt (pica).

Signs of iron toxicity

Excessive iron intake can lead to toxicity, causing damage to organs. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of toxicity – joint pain, abdominal pain, fatigue, weakness – are the same as deficiency signs, so knowing if you need more or less iron is tricky and can only be confirmed with a blood test.

The importance of testing your iron levels

Determining your iron status needs to be done via a blood test with your GP. These tests help diagnose deficiencies or excesses, allowing for timely intervention and management.

Different forms of iron and their benefits

  • Ferrous sulfate: Commonly used supplement with high bioavailability but may cause gastrointestinal side-effects.

  • Iron bisglycinate: Chelated form of iron known for high absorption and fewer side-effects.

  • Ferrous gluconate: Gentler on the stomach with lower iron content.

  • Ferric iron: Less commonly used due to poor absorption.

Iron is indispensable for numerous bodily functions, from oxygen transport to immune support. Ensuring an adequate intake through a balanced diet or supplements, when necessary, is vital for maintaining health. Regular testing of iron levels helps detect and address deficiencies or excesses, preventing associated health complications. Understanding the different forms of iron and their benefits allows for informed choices in managing iron intake effectively.

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