Iron is the spark-plug nutrient, responsible for transporting vital oxygen from the lungs to our organs and tissues. Without it, our cells would literally starve, our muscles and brain would cease to function, and our immune system would no longer be strong enough to serve as our own internal army.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiencies worldwide, so it’s easy to think we’re all lacking in iron.
The reality is a little different. Iron is readily available in meat, eggs and fish, as well as fortified foods like cereal and pasta. If you eat a well-balanced diet, you’re likely to receive enough iron for your red blood cells to develop normally and be able to carry oxygen around the rest of the body to provide us with the energy we need to get through the day.
How much iron do we need?
Authorities generally recommend men and non-menstruating women consume about 10 milligrams of iron daily, while menstruating or breastfeeding women should have 15 milligrams. Pregnant women should consume 30 milligrams per day to ensure both mom and baby’s needs are met .
In most cases, these levels numbers are easily reached through a healthy diet, which is why Xtend-Life chooses not to include iron in any of our supplements, in order to prevent potentially dangerous iron overload.
There are times, however, when iron-deficiency does occur, although this is relatively uncommon. Iron supplements should not be taken unless you have been diagnosed by your doctor as iron deficient. Illness, a heavier-than-normal menstrual flow, chemotherapy and kidney conditions can all have a negative impact on red blood cells, leading to iron deficiency.
With fewer red blood cells to deliver oxygen to the other cells in the body, we become tired, and everyday activities (including exercise) are more difficult, as our cells and muscles are depleted of the oxygen they need for strength and endurance. Having fewer red blood cells can also compromise our immune system, making us more susceptible to bugs .
There are also a handful of health issues including celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and the aftereffects of gastric bypass surgery that can cause your body to absorb less iron than it needs .
In these rare cases, a physician might recommend a supplement. Experts recommend adults and teens take in no more than 45 milligrams of iron per day, while children under age 14 take in no more than 40 milligrams.
For most of us, the right mix of iron-rich foods can ensure we meet our needs without the risk of iron overload associated with iron supplements.
There are two types of iron available in food – heme iron, the kind found in meat, poultry and fish, and non-heme iron, found primarily in plant foods but also in some meats.
Heme iron from meat is much more readily absorbed by your body. Experts say that we are able to utilize as much as 30 percent of heme iron found in animal protein, compared to just 10 percent of non-heme iron found in plants.
Vegetarian or vegan? Don’t stress! You’re not necessarily destined to be low in iron. You just need to be a bit more aware of eating the right foods for optimum health.
Here are some easy options to boost the iron content of your diet:
- Meats, fish and poultry including beef, turkey, lamb, liver, chicken, eggs, shrimp, tuna and scallops;
- Veggies including spinach, sweet potatoes, tomato paste, peas, broccoli, green beans, beet and dandelion greens, kale, collards and chard;
- Fortified foods including breads, cereals and pasta;
- Fruits including watermelon, strawberries, dates, figs, prunes, raisins, dried apricots and dried peaches;
- Legumes (beans, lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, soybeans, etc.), nuts and related products such as tofu; and
- Condiments including black-strap molasses and maple syrup. (Make sure you choose authentic maple syrup though. Many commercial maple syrups are little more than liquid sugar.)
Too much of a good thing
But before you go loading up on steak, make sure you proceed with caution, because eating too many iron-rich foods can be as detrimental to our health as taking too high dose of an iron supplement.
When we take in too much iron, our bodies can’t easily dispose of it, and it ends up being stored in both our blood cells and our organs.
High levels of iron have been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arthritis and other health conditions, in part because excess iron tends to oxidize causing free radicals.
Free radicals then embark on a mission of destruction, contributing to wrinkles, dark spots and other signs of aging in their wake.
Excess iron can also be revealed through hair loss, impotence and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome.
References: NZ Nutrition Foundation. Iron. https://nutritionfoundation.org.nz/nutrition-facts/minerals/iron
 The Good and Bad of Iron http://www.berkeleywellness.com/supplements/minerals/article/good-and-bad-iron
 Iron deficiency anemia http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000584.htm