Published: 06/21/2013 - Updated: 12/11/2016
Author: Miriam Reyes
Iron is a mineral that must be included in our diet and it is necessary at every stage of life. We therefore must include iron-rich foods in our daily diet, but it is also important to eat foods that promote iron absorption in the body.
The role of iron
Iron is a trace element which is present in every cell of the body and is essential in the formation of proteins, which are found in blood cells such as red blood cells, hemoglobins and myoglobins which are in the muscles. These have the function of carrying oxygen.
If you lack iron in your diet, the body cannot produce enough hemoglobin, and therefore the organs do not receive adequate oxygenation.
Trace elements such as iron are also involved in regulating some bodily functions such as breathing, digestion and muscle function. They are also responsible for stimulating the immune function and physical endurance.
Iron helps with the smooth functioning of the thyroid gland and central nervous system too. It is essential for some brain functions such as learning too.
So, if our iron intake is deficient we can become quite seriously ill.
According to WHO, iron deficiency is more common than you might think. It is the number one nutritional disorder in the world in terms of cases, and is the result of a low consumption of this mineral due to eating foods low in iron.
Iron deficiency is also known as "anemia" and causes loss of muscle mass and red blood cells. If anemia is left to progress, it can cause symptoms such as:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Brittle bones and prone to falling
- Lack of appetite
- Dizziness, headaches
- Low mood or dispondence
- Pale skin and mucous membranes
- Acceleration of the heart rate
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is highly recommended that you go to a doctor to figure out the cause, as these are all common symptoms that may have another cause which is not necessarily anemia. It is important not to consume any iron rich supplements unless you have been advised by your doctor, or if you are unsure your diagnosis is anemia.
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Sources of Iron in Food
It can be found in two types of forms:
Hem Iron: This is the most absorbable form of iron, as it is absorbed directly into the body. It is found in animal-based foods such as red meat, organs, shellfish, oily fish, and chicken.
Non Hem Iron: Less easily absorbed, it is present in plant-based foods such as green vegetables, legumes such as chickpeas, beans and lentils, grains or enriched cereals, such as oats, brown rice, Nuts and dried fruits, in seeds such as sesame and egg yolk.
Although Hem iron is absorbed directly, you can improve the absorption of non-hem iron rich foods combining this form of iron with others, thus favouring its absorption.
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Foods rich in vitamin C can facilitate iron absorption. When you include vegetables rich in iron, try to include a dessert with fruit, such as kiwi, melon and some strawberries.
If you prepare a dish with vegetables, combine them with pepper, cauliflower, broccoli or vegetables rich in vitamin C to increase iron absorption.
Combining lean meats with vegetables or dark green leafy vegetables in a meal can increase the absorption of iron from plant sources up to three times.
Do not drink coffee or tea after the meal, so that the iron you consume can be taken advantage of properly.
Some medications inhibit the absorption of iron, such as antacids, penicillin and aspirin.
Oxalates present in green leafy vegetables like chard, spinach and lettuce may prevent the absorption of non-hem iron.
Tannins are substances found in chocolate, coffee, red wine and some fruits; it is advisable to consume them in moderation, as it can hinder iron absorption from plant-based sources.
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