Nutrition Focus: Iron

"Strong to the finich 'cause I eats my spinach!"

Popeye, the crazy sailor character from the 1930s touted that spinach gave him super strength and power.  Why spinach?  Iron is why!

Iron is a red pigmented mineral that is essential for making hemoglobin and myoglobin.  Hemoglobin is a red pigment molecule that carries oxygen in our body.  Myoglobin is a similar molecule that stores oxygen in our muscles.  Iron is absorbed in our body by cells in the intestine called enterocytes.  Once iron enters an enterocyte, it is stored as ferritin for later use.

There are two types of iron - heme iron and non-heme iron.  Heme iron comes from meat sources and is more easily absorbed.  Non-heme iron is from plants such as leafy, green veggies like spinach but is less readily absorbed.  Our bodies only absorb 5-20% of iron in our diet.  We can increase iron absorption by eating foods high in vitamin C which enhances the absorption of iron.  Calcium containing foods decrease the absorption of iron by binding it.  Ideally, if needing to boost iron, don't eat with dairy foods. 

Foods high in iron:                                               Foods high in vitamin C :

  • Red meat                                                              Citrus fruits 
  • Liver                                                                       Yellow/red peppers
  • Fish                                                                         Broccoli
  • Leafy green veggies                                           Tomatoes
  • Soy foods e.g. tofu                                               Potatoes
  • Chickpeas                                                             Cabbage
  • Lentils                                                                    Cauliflower
  • White beans and beans in general
  • Dried fruits

It would seem that iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia wouldn't be so common in the United States, but the standard American diet (SAD) does not have a lot of fruits and veggies in it.  In some communities that are food deserts, healthy iron rich food is hard to come by affordably.  In these communities, lead exposure is often a concern too and iron deficiency makes lead a bigger health risk.

Iron deficiency anemia can have symptoms of severe fatigue, paleness and weakness.  Low iron states can lead to poor sleep, muscle irritation and decreased intellectual functioning.  Iron overdoses can occur with a toxic buildup of iron in the liver, pancreas and heart disrupting the functioning of vital organs. 

Iron is particularly important for brain function.  Research shows that low iron states lead to learning difficulites.  Low iron can increase lead absorption which also impacts cognitive function.  Improving iron stores in the body has been shown to improve intellectual function and specifically improve test scores in math in deficient teens. 

Babies are born with enough iron stores to last until 4-6 months of age.  Rapid growth spurts require a lot of iron.  Babies from ages 7-12m need about 11mg/day of iron.  After age 2y, growth spurts slow down, iron stores can be replenished and the risk of deficiency decreases until the teen years when rapid growth occurs again.  Children ages 2-10 need about 8mg/day of iron.  Girls become more vulnerable to iron deficiency due to menstruation in adolescence.   Teen girls need about 15-20mg/day and teen boys about 11mg/day.  By way of reference, a cup of spinach, blanched has about 6mg of iron. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies at age 1y be screened for anemia and that all teenagers are screened during growth spurts, especially once girls begin menstruating.  Iron is really important to monitor at many phases of life ~ infancy, childhood, pregnancy and for senior health.

Eat your iron!

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