What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that is required for human life. First, it is needed to transport oxygen through our bodies.
It is found in our body’s red blood cells where it is bound to a protein called hemoglobin. This protein contains a molecule called heme which consists of iron. Here, it is able to bind oxygen. So, red blood cells are able to carry oxygen from our lungs to each cell and tissue of our body.
Second, it plays an important role in the production of energy out of fats and carbs to carbon dioxide and water in our cells. These cells are called mitochondria which store enzymes that need this mineral for their functioning. Without this essential mineral, our cells wouldn’t have enough energy to work properly. Furthermore, our body can store it in our liver, spleen, bone marrow, and muscles.
Due to the World Health Organization (WHO) up to 80% of the world’s population may be deficient in iron – the number one nutritional disorder in the world. Plus, 30% percent may have deficiency-caused anemia.
Why is iron so important?
Iron is an essential mineral. „Essential“ means that our body is not able to produce it by itself. So, we need to get it from our food. A chronic deficiency can lead to anemia. Anemia stands for a low concentration of red blood cells/hemoglobin in the blood. The most common symptoms of anemia are fatigue, weakness, and low physical endurance. You get tired easily because your blood cells do not have enough iron to transport oxygen to your cells.
Anemia can be everything from mild to severe. The highest risk of a deficiency has children, pregnant, premenopausal, and young women. The main physical causes are blood loss caused by bleeding ulcers, surgery, severe trauma, heavy menstrual bleeding, gastrointestinal disorders (such as celiac disease), or a malignant tumor. Plus, another reason can be an iron-poor diet, especially during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence caused by rapid growth.
Symptoms of anemia
Anemia symptoms vary depending on its cause but may include:
- General fatigue
- Pale skin
- Irregular heartbeats
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Chest pain
- Cold hands and feet
- Leaky gut or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
But, if your body stores are full, there is also a „too much“ of it which can lead your body to hemochromatosis linked to liver damage, diabetes, and also discoloration of your skin. Too much of the essential mineral can not be excreted by your body – unlike other nutrients. That’s why you shouldn’t take iron supplements without seeing your doctor.
Where can we find iron?
There are 2 types of iron we can get from food: heme and non-heme.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for iron is 8 mg/day for men, 18 mg/day for women due to the menstrual cycle, and 30 mg/day for pregnant women. Due to the ability to store it in our liver and muscles, eating animal liver and flesh is rich in heme iron. Also, a black pudding made from blood is full of this essential mineral. The darker the color of the meat, the higher the content of iron.
But, there are also plant-based foods that contain substantial amounts of (non-heme) iron: dried beans and peas, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark molasses, and green leafy vegetables.
Is heme iron better?
Heme iron is better absorbed in the intestine into the body than non-heme. Besides, our body is able to adjust its absorption according to our iron status. So, people with a low status will absorb more and excrete less than those with a high level. Having a defect in this feedback system can cause hemochromatosis. Plus, the absorption of this essential mineral can be influenced by other food components just like a bumper.
For example, vitamin C (e.g. from yellow bell pepper) helps the absorption of non-heme iron. For example, parsley and spinach are rich in it, and vitamin C – the perfect source for your body. In contrast, calcium (including all dairy products), tea, coffee, cocoa, and whole-grain products can block its absorption. That’s why you should avoid eating these foods together to make sure you get enough of the essential mineral.
The difference in heme and non-heme iron
Some studies on heme and non-heme iron come to a clear conclusion: Avoiding heme iron may be one of the key elements of plant-based protection against metabolic syndrome. Plus, following a vegan diet may also be beneficial in lowering heart disease risk, risk of stroke, and diabetes. Higher heme-iron (from animals) is also significantly associated with an increased risk for cancer and tumors.
A population-based prospective study of Swedish men included almost 39.000 men from 45 to 79 years. These men did not have suffered from a stroke, coronary heart disease, or cancer at baseline. Findings from this study were: The higher your intake of heme iron (from animals) the higher your risk of stroke and of type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Another study with a total of 322.846 participants came to a similar conclusion: The risk of pancreatic cancer (and therefore diabetes) increased significantly with total meat intake.
To sum it up, if you consume animal iron, you also consume large amounts of cholesterol, saturated fats, hormones and other harming substances which can lead to serious health problems. To get enough of the essential mineral, make sure to eat a lot of plant-based sources in combination with vitamin C and avoid inhibitors like tea and coffee simultaneously. I’ll keep you updated for some perfect recipes to avoid a harmful deficiency!
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Here is the scientific evidence and all studies used for this blog post
University of Maryland – Medical Center:
Bao, W./Rong, Y./Rong, S./Liu, L. 2012: Dietary iron intake, body iron stores, and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis, in: BMC Medicine, 2012.
Hunnicutt, J./He, K./Xun, P. 2014: Dietary iron intake and body iron stores are associated with risk of coronary heart disease in a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies, in: The Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 144, 2014, No. 3, pp. 359-366.
Kaluza, J./Wolk, A./Larsson, S. C. 2013: Heme iron intake and risk of stroke: a prospective study of men, in: Stroke, Vol. 44, 2013, No. 2, pp. 334-339.
Saunders, A. V./Craig, W. J./Baines, S. K./Posen, J. S. 2013: Iron and vegetarian diets, in: The Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 199, 2013, No. 4, pp. 11-16.
Taunk, P./Hecht, E./Stolzenberg-Solomon, R. 2016: Are meat and heme iron intake associated with pancreatic cancer? Results from the NIH-AARP diet and health cohort, in: International Journal of Cancer, Vol. 138, 2016, No. 9, pp. 2172-2189.
Tuner-McGrievy, G./Harris, M. 2014: Key elements of plant-based diets associated with reduced risk of metabolic syndrome, in: Current Diabetes Reports, Vol. 14, 2014, No. 9, pp. 524.
Yang, W./Li, B./Dong, X, Zhang, X. Q./Zeng, Y./Zhou, J. L./Tang, Y. H./Xu, J. J. 2014: Is heme iron intake associated with risk of coronary heart disease? A meta-analysis of prospective studies, in: European Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 53, 2014, No. 2, pp. 395-400.