Iron is an essential nutrient to include in a healthy balanced diet as it has many functions including growth and development and plays a critical role in transferring oxygen around the body. Iron also helps in energy production, muscle function, DNA synthesis and the immune system. It’s most important role is to prevent anaemia. We get most of the iron we need from food, our body carefully monitors its levels of iron; absorbing more when demand is high and less when stores are adequate. Iron is stored primarily in the bone marrow and liver.
Red blood cells need iron to make haemoglobin, the substance that helps them carry oxygen around the body, from the lungs to the body’s tissues and carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs. Haemoglobin production falls if insufficient iron is available and with less haemoglobin inside them red blood cells can no longer carry as much oxygen, and so delivery to the cells is reduced, causing the typical effects of tiredness and fatigue.
Increased development of the brain is also one of the many benefits of iron. Since oxygen supply in the blood is aided by it and the brain uses approximately 20% of the blood oxygen, iron is directly related to brain health and its functions. Proper flow of blood in the brain can stimulate cognitive activity and help to create new neural pathways to prevent cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, so proper iron intake and its subsequent brain oxygenation is essential.
Iron is a vital element for muscle health. It is present in the muscle tissues and helps to provide the supply of oxygen required for contraction of muscles. Without it, muscles lose their tone and elasticity; muscle weakness is one of the most obvious signs of anaemia.
Iron also plays a key role in providing strength to the immune system of the human body. Thus, the body is made proficient enough to fight against a number of diseases and infections. Red blood cells are necessary for providing oxygen to damaged tissues, organs, and cells. Without it, there would be no haemoglobin; without haemoglobin, there would be no oxygen. The healing process needs iron to happen!
Iron, when consumed in sufficient amounts, can help focus concentration and energy, which will boost cognitive and mental performance. Increased flow of blood to the brain due to iron’s red blood cell activity is what results in this important benefit.
There are two forms of iron. One being haem iron which is found in animal products and is the most efficiently absorbed form of iron and not affected by other dietary components, but the other non-haem iron is found in plant foods and the body finds this more difficult to absorb.
Vitamin C helps the absorption of iron and when vitamin C rich foods are combined with foods rich in iron, absorption of the iron is substantially increased. Even a glass of fruit juice with your meal can aid with iron absorption.
The substance called tannin that is found in tea is also thought to inhibit the absorption of iron.
Foods high in phytates and oxalates, such as raw bran, whole meal flour, spinach, nuts, chocolate, parsley and rhubarb may also have a negative impact on iron absorption.
Dairy products like yogurt, cheese and milk as well as eggs interfere with iron absorption – that’s because casein from milk and certain forms of calcium inhibit iron absorption.
Good sources of iron in food include:
- Lean red meat
- Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, tuna
- Eggs especially yolks
- Fortified cereals
- Peas and beans, e.g. Chickpeas, lentils, baked beans
- Dried apricots, prunes, raisins
- Brown rice and whole grains
- Leafy green vegetables, e.g. spinach, watercress and curl kale
- Almonds, Brazil nuts
Your personal trainer can help to advise on healthy diet foods to adequately provide you with the iron your body needs to function efficiently.