Why do our bodies need iron?

Do you sleep well but often feel tired, exhausted or lethargic? Are you unable to focus or do you have shortness of breath? If you frequently experience any or all of the above you may have iron-deficiency anemia. Anemia affects one in five women of reproductive age, and commonly occurs in vegetarians or vegans who do not consume iron-rich foods.

What iron does for the body: Getting enough iron is important for the formation of red blood cells and for healthy immune function. Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies worldwide. Iron plays multiple roles in the body. It is an essential component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. As a component of myoglobin, a protein that delivers oxygen to the muscles, it supports metabolism. Iron is also needed for growth, development and normal cellular functioning.

Food sources of iron: Iron is an essential nutrient, which means you have to obtain it from food as your body does not make it. There are two types of iron found in food: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal proteins such as beef, pork, chicken, lamb and fish. Heme iron has higher bioavailability than non-heme iron, at about 14 to 18 percent, and is increased in the presence of vitamin C. Non-heme iron is found in greens, eggs, nuts, beans and fortified grains. Both the presence of vitamin C and heme iron can increase absorption of non-heme iron, which is about 5 to 12 percent. Due to the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron, vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk for iron-deficiency anemia. Calcium can interfere with the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron. Careful planning is encouraged so that these foods are eaten at separate meals.

How much iron do you need? Iron needs vary depending on stage of life. Children have different needs than adults and women need more than men. Women who are pregnant are at high risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia due to the increased in blood volume and production of red blood cells. Below are the iron needs for healthy people. Iron needs for athletes are 1.3 to 1.7 times higher and for vegetarians the iron needs are 1.8 times higher.

Children 4-8 years 10 mg
Children 9-13 years 8 mg
Adult women 19-50 years 18 mg
Adult men 19-50 years 8 mg
Pregnant women 27 mg
Breastfeeding women 9 mg

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