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Iron: One of the most important minerals in the body

by Katia Annousi, Dietitian & Nutritionist, QMU

16 May 2024 • 0 min read

Iron is a widely distributed metal in nature and is particularly important for the human body. It is retained in large quantities in the body and about 90% is reabsorbed and reused every day. The remaining iron is excreted, mainly through bile. Iron is very important for maintaining many body functions, including the production of hemoglobin, a protein in the blood that carries oxygen. It is also essential for maintaining healthy cells, skin, hair and nails, as well as in the normal functioning of the immune system.

Iron deficiency

Iron deficiency anaemia is a common type of anaemia - a condition in which the blood does not have enough healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen all over the body. As the name suggests, iron deficiency anaemia is caused by insufficient iron. Without enough iron, the body cannot produce enough hemoglobin in the red blood cells to allow them to carry oxygen. As a result, iron deficiency anemia can cause fatigue and shortness of breath.

Which are the possible symptoms of iron deficiency?

  • Pale or yellow skin
  • Unexplained fatigue or lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath or chest pain, especially during vigorous activity
  • Unexplained intense feelings of weakness
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Headache, especially during intense activity
  • Brittle nails
  • Hair loss
  • Cold hands & feet
  • Inflammation or pain in the tongue
  • Unusual craving for non-nutritious substances, such as ice
  • Lack of appetite, especially in infants and children with iron deficiency anaemia

Common causes of iron deficiency

  • Excessive blood loss. This can be due to injury, surgery, internal bleeding, heavy menstrual bleeding or overuse of certain medications.
  • Inability to absorb iron properly. Certain genetic conditions can interfere with iron absorption, as can intense endurance sports and surgery.
  • Heart disease. Heart disease can make the body unable to use iron properly.
  • Kidney disease. People with kidney disease tend to produce fewer red blood cells than normal.

How can I supplement my diet with iron?

  • Red meat: beef, pork, liver
  • Poultry: chicken, turkey
  • Fish & seafood, especially shellfish, sardines & anchovies
  • Leafy green vegetables, broccoli, cabbage
  • Pulses (chickpeas are a rich source of iron and ideal for vegetarians. They provide 3.7 mg of iron per cup and have lean, plant-based protein - 14.6 g per cup)
  • Pasta, cereals, rice and iron-fortified cereals
  • Dried fruits such as apricots and plums
  • Iron supplements in cases of severe iron deficiency

Dietary guidelines for increasing iron intake & absorption

  • Enhance your diet with sources of heme iron: meat, liver, poultry, fish & seafood.
  • Iron from plant sources has low bioavailability, meaning it is absorbed in small amounts, so it should always be combined with a source of vitamin C. For example, add lemon to chickpeas and fresh tomato to lentils. Otherwise you can consume orange, tangerine, kiwi or strawberries after your iron-enriched meal.
  • Enhance your diet with rich sources of vitamin A such as sweet potato, carrot, apricots & green leafy vegetables. Vitamin A deficiency has been linked to poor iron absorption.
  • Avoid consuming plant sources of iron along with coffee, tea, chamomile and cocoa (they contain tannins that reduce absorption). Such drinks are best consumed between meals rather than during. Calcium in dairy products also reduces iron absorption.
  • Prefer consuming iron-fortified commercial products (e.g. breakfast cereals).

Common side effects of increased iron intake

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea
  • Black stools

What is the Recommended Daily Iron Intake?

  • Non-pregnant women aged 19 to 50 years: 18 mg.
  • Pregnant women: 27 mg.
  • Women aged 51 years and older: 8 mg.
  • Men aged 19 years and older: 8 mg.
  • Infants and children: 7 to 16 mg, depending on age.

What iron should I take?

There are many different iron preparations commercially available in various forms (fumarate, glycinate, chelated, etc.). The evidence supporting the use of chelated iron for iron deficiency is strong. Iron deficiency is defined when ferritin levels fall below 15ng/mL in men and below 24ng/mL in women. Chelated iron is a supplemental form of iron that allows it to pass through the digestive system without being broken down.

Extra tip: In case of iron deficiency, it is likely that there may be a deficiency of folate and/or vitamin B12, all of which constitute the "blood factory" of the body. Check their blood levels as well, so you can get the right product to help correct any additional deficiencies.

In conclusion

Iron is an important part of our diet at all stages of life and one of the most important minerals that we need to take in adequate amounts, as it is an important constituent for blood formation. As we can conclude, its absorption is a particular issue, especially for people with iron deficiency anaemia. Enhancing our diet with vitamin B complex, vitamin C & A (especially with iron-enriched meals), and avoiding its simultaneous intake with calcium & tannins is vital for its effective absorption and use by our body. Holland & Barrett provides a wide variety of iron supplements that cater to our unique individual needs.

Scientific References

Pasricha SR, Tye-Din J, Muckenthaler MU, Swinkels DW. (2021). Iron deficiency. Lancet.  Jan 16;397(10270):233-248.

DeLoughery TG. (2017). Iron Deficiency Anemia. Med Clin North Am. Mar;101(2):319-332.

Leung AKC, Lam JM, Wong AHC, Hon KL, Li X. (2024). Iron Deficiency Anemia: An Updated Review. Curr Pediatr Rev. 20(3):339-356.

Cappellini MD, Musallam KM, Taher AT. (2020).  Iron deficiency anaemia revisited. J Intern Med. Feb;287(2):153-170.