Iron is just one of various minerals required in the human diet for proper body function. Although mineral deficiencies are rare in developed countries, iron deficiency is rather common in women, adolescents, and competitive athletes. Approximately 58% of otherwise healthy women in the United States have some degree of iron deficiency.
Iron plays an important role in the diet as it is a component of hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is the iron containing protein of the red blood cells and is responsible for oxygen transportation and utilization of energy. When the body does not have enough hemoglobin a person is diagnosed with Anemia. Anemia, Iron Deficiency, and Iron Deficiency Anemia are names used interchangeably for the lack of iron and thus hemoglobin.
Iron deficiency causes concern because it may cause a number of negative effects on human function. Iron deficiency may cause fatigue that impairs the memory, mental ability, and ability to do physical work in adults and affects athletic performance. In infants, iron deficiency may cause delayed motor function or mental function. Lastly, iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk for preterm babies which often experience a number of health issues.
When there is not enough iron in the body, functions may be impaired but physical signs and symptoms do not show up until Anemia sets in. Signs of anemia include feeling tired and weak, decreased mental performance, slow development in children, difficulty maintaining body temperature, decreased immune function, and glossitis (inflamed tongue). The most common tests for screening for iron deficiency are the hemoglobin test and hematocrit test. Hemoglobin test measures how much hemoglobin is in the blood and the hematocrit test shows the percentage of red blood cells by volume. Iron needs increase with rapid growth, pregnancy, and blood loss due to menstrual periods or blood donations. Competitive athletes may require more iron due to heavy training, gastrointestinal bleeding, loosing iron through sweat, and breakdown of red blood cells.
Iron is divided into two types: heme (animal sources) and non-heme (plant sources). Heme sources of iron are absorbed two to three times better than non-heme sources of iron. Vegetarians should consume iron sources in proper combinations suggested by a dietitian to achieve proper absorption. Vitamin C helps the body absorb any iron source and is recommended to be consumed in combination with the iron source.
Best Food Sources for Heme Iron:
- Beef or Chicken Liver
- Canned Sardines
- Cooked Turkey
Best Food Sources for Non Heme Iron:
- Enriched Breakfast Cereals
- Cooked Beans
- Pumpkins/sesame/squash seeds
Just as the lack of iron causes problems, too much iron can also be an issue. Hemocromatosis is a disease in which the body stores too much iron. The first sign of the disease is organ failure due to excess iron in the liver and heart. Men are more susceptible to Hemocromatosis because they do not routinely lose blood through a menstrual cycle as women do.