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The Importance of Adequate Iron for the Whole Family

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Iron is an important mineral that’s vital for the whole family. It plays a key part in your body’s functioning as it’s responsible for transporting oxygen to your organs. Not getting enough iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world, but it can be remedied with an iron-rich diet.

Iron is found in a variety of natural food sources, as well as some fortified foods. This means that most of us can consume the recommended daily requirement by following a nutritious and balanced diet. In some cases, however, a person might need to enhance their intake with iron supplements.

Why is iron so important?

Iron performs several crucial functions in our bodies. It plays a part in our growth and development, helps protect us from infections, and is responsible for the production of haemoglobin.

Haemoglobin is the protein molecules that transports oxygen from your lungs to other organs in your body, and then transports carbon dioxide back to your lungs. Haemoglobin is found in red blood cells and is what gives your blood its bright, red colour. Iron also plays a vital part in the production of myoglobin, which is similar to haemoglobin but is responsible for transporting oxygen to your muscle tissue.

Our bodies cannot produce iron on their own, which means that we need to eat enough iron-rich foods to cater to our bodies’ requirements.

How much iron do we need?

The recommended daily iron intake depends on a few factors such as your age, sex, diet, and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Typically, an adult should consume (per day):

  • 8 mg for men
  • 18 mg for premenopausal women
  • 8 mg for postmenopausal women
  • 27 mg for pregnant women
  • 9 mg for lactating women

It’s different for children. Their iron requirements are very much age dependent from birth and change quickly. Before you supplement your child’s iron intake, consult a healthcare provider to determine whether they’re consuming enough. Preferably, children should consume (both male and female, per day):

  • 0.27 mg from birth to 6 months
  • 11 mg from 7 to 12 months
  • 7 mg from 1 to 3 years old
  • 10 mg from 4 to 8 years old
  • 8 mg from 9 to 13 years old
  • 11mg/15 mg from 14 to 18 years old

Incorporating iron-rich foods into your diet

There are two types of iron in food: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood It is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is found in plant sources and some fortified food items.

When following a nutritious, balanced diet, most of us can get the iron we need from the foods we consume. The only reason to take iron supplements is when you have a deficiency, which should be confirmed and advised on by a healthcare professional.

Focus on including more of the below iron-rich foods in your everyday meals:

More food items you can snack on to boost your iron intake:

  • Fortified cereals, grains, and breads
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dates, figs, and raisins
  • Dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa)

Those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets, should pay special attention to their diets to ensure that they get sufficient iron. Foods that are rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruit, strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and potatoes can help enhance the absorption of iron found in vegetables and legumes, and should form part of your diet on a regular basis.

Iron deficiency

Not getting enough iron can result in an iron deficiency. To prepare for low iron levels, the body stores iron in the liver, spleen, muscles and bone marrow. These reserves are used when your intake is low, but in the case of low iron consumption over an extended time, you can develop a condition known as iron deficiency anaemia. When this happens, your iron reserves are depleted and your intake is too low, so your body can’t produce haemoglobin.

Typically, women and children are more likely to develop an iron deficiency. Especially pregnant women. Globally, an estimated 40% of all children aged 6 to 59 months, 37% of pregnant women, and 30% of women aged 15 to 49 years are affected according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Fatigue, or lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Difficulty focusing (which could result in learning difficulties in children)

Keep your health and iron levels in check

Annual physical exams and bloodwork can help you keep your iron levels, and overall health in check. Remember, knowledge is power when it comes to your health, so now that you’re aware of the vital role that iron plays in the functioning of your body, make sure to include a sufficient amount of iron-rich foods in your family’s diet.

If you think that you might be suffering from low iron levels, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider. A doctor will conduct blood tests to determine your haemoglobin, blood iron, and ferritin levels, and make an accurate diagnosis.

FAQs

Is iron really that important?

Yes, it performs several crucial functions in our bodies. It plays a part in our growth and development, helps protect us from infections, and is responsible for the production of haemoglobin.

How much iron do I need?

The recommended daily intake depends on your age, sex, diet, and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Typically, an adult should consume (per day):

  • 8 mg for men
  • 18 mg for premenopausal women
  • 8 mg for postmenopausal women
  • 27 mg for pregnant women
  • 9 mg for lactating women

Preferably, children should consume (both male and female, per day):

  • 0.27 mg from birth to 6 months
  • 11 mg from 7 to 12 months
  • 7 mg from 1 to 3 years old
  • 10 mg from 4 to 8 years old
  • 8 mg from 9 to 13 years old
  • 11mg/15 mg from 14 to 18 years old

Are meats the only source of iron?

No, there are many other sources, including:

  • Fortified cereals, grains, and breads
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dates, figs and raisins
  • Beans and lentils
  • Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
  • Dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa)
  • Tofu

What are the symptoms of an iron deficiency?

Typically, women and children are more likely to develop an iron deficiency. Some symptoms include:

  • Fatigue, or lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Difficulty focusing (which could result in learning difficulties in children)

Should I take iron supplements?

Most of us can get the iron we need from the foods we consume. The only reason to take iron supplements will be when you have a deficiency, which should be confirmed and advised on by a healthcare professional.

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