Iron is a vital mineral in our body and serves a multitude of roles.
About half of the iron in the body is found in red blood cells and in the protein called hemoglobin. Additional iron is found in muscles and enzymes involved in energy production, metabolism, and cellular protection. Some iron is stored in reservoirs in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow, where it is bound to another protein called ferritin.
Loss of iron from the body occurs naturally, so it is important to consume iron from food sources daily.
Iron is mainly found in animal-based foods such as meat, eggs, and fish, as well as in plant-based foods – legumes, green vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. However, the absorption of iron from plant-based foods is lower than from animal-based foods.
Iron from plant sources isn’t absorbed as much into the body, due to two reasons. Firstly, the chemical structure of iron in plants is less available to the body. The second reason is the presence of iron absorption inhibitors in plants, such as dietary fibers, phytates, and oxalates.
However, the availability of iron from plant-based foods can be improved by the presence of vitamin C. The combination of these two components allows for better absorption of iron, so it is important to include iron-rich plant foods alongside foods rich in vitamin C, such as red peppers, or to season with lemon juice.
In order to minimize the impact of phytates found in legumes on iron absorption, it is advisable to soak or sprout them. Other components that inhibit iron absorption are tannins, found in coffee, cocoa, and tea. Therefore, it is not recommended to consume them close to a vegetarian meal. Calcium and casein in milk and its products also hinder iron absorption.
Besides certain food components, there are also medications that neutralize stomach acidity, inhibiting iron absorption.
How is iron deficiency identified?
When examining the results of various blood tests, several values indicate the status of iron in the blood. The first is hemoglobin. The second is serum iron, which is a measure of iron available for cell utilization. The third is ferritin, which is a measure of iron stores. Alongside the blood test results, a normal range is provided. It is important to remember that deviation from the range does not necessarily indicate a problem or illness. Nevertheless, it is advisable to seek medical advice.
The term “anemia” means a lack of blood, but in fact what is lacking is hemoglobin, a protein that gives blood its red color. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells, and its role is to transport oxygen molecules from the lungs to various body tissues and return carbon dioxide waste to the lungs.
Low levels of hemoglobin indicate anemia, which can cause various symptoms and disorders. Anemia is common mainly in women, children, and adolescents and is characterized by fatigue, paleness, lack of concentration, headaches, shortness of breath, and rapid heartbeat. Iron deficiency can also affect learning and memory abilities. In adults, a deficiency can impair physical ability and quality of life.
What are the main causes of iron deficiency?
Blood loss due to injury, surgery, blood donation, or internal bleeding. Also, a poor diet low in iron sources over time (among vegetarians or vegans, for example), as well as low food intake in general due to economic or other reasons, such as loss of appetite and mood to cook or eat. Additionally, changing physical and environmental conditions, such as those of dispersed migrants away from their homes or soldiers in operational activities.
Additional reasons include problems with iron absorption in the body and developmental changes throughout life. Accelerated growth rate in children and adolescents, pregnancy, and breastfeeding – all of these increase the required daily iron intake.
Strike while the iron is hot: Dealing with an iron deficiency
To deal with an iron deficiency, it is advisable to improve nutrition first and concurrently address the underlying causes of the deficiency. In these situations, it is usually not possible to replenish iron stores and overcome anemia solely through diet, and it is recommended to take iron supplements in drops, powder, capsules, or tablets, according to the guidelines of a nutritionist or doctor.
In the first years of life, iron is required for proper brain development, so iron drops should be given regularly from the age of four months to one and a half years. This is also important for children and adolescents, who are in a period of growth and learning. Especially in infants and children, a significant iron deficiency can be irreversible.
It is important for at-risk demographics to diagnose this through periodic blood tests – women of childbearing age, infants, and toddlers. If you or a family member suffer from iron deficiency due to diet or if there are symptoms that may indicate iron deficiency such as weakness, fatigue, or lack of concentration that were not present before, it is important to undergo tests.