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Iron is an essential mineral that is vital for healthy blood and oxygen transport as well as normal enzyme function throughout the body.
What is Iron?
Iron is a mineral found in many foods and is also one of the most common dietary supplements. It is found in two forms:
- Heme (animal-sourced iron)
- Nonheme (plant-based iron)
Heme iron is more bioavailable than nonheme iron, although vitamin C can promote the increased absorption of plant-based iron.
Iron is essential for transporting oxygen throughout the body and as such is closely tied to energy levels. When iron is low, less oxygen can be carried in red blood cells, which can result in anemia and fatigue.
Health Benefits of Iron
- Supports the transport of oxygen via red blood cells
- Acts as a cofactor for numerous enzymes
- Promotes healthy energy levels
- Supports cognition and neurological development
- Promotes healthy cellular function
- Supports muscle metabolism
- Supports healthy connective tissue
- Promotes proper physical growth in infants and children
Food Sources of Iron
Iron is found in many foods in both heme and nonheme forms.
Foods that contain heme iron include:
Foods that contain nonheme iron include:
- White beans
- Dark chocolate
- Kidney beans
While iron is an essential nutrient, and is a common dietary supplement, getting too much can be problematic. In excess doses, iron can be toxic. But when levels are too low, symptoms can be extreme, such as fatigue and muscle weakness. As with all minerals, a proper balance is required for optimal health.
Many women have suboptimal levels of iron. Reproductive-aged women have higher iron needs than men, largely due to menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and postpartum recovery.
People who may be at higher risk of low iron levels include:
- Pregnant women
- Infants and young children
- Teenage girls
- Reproductive-aged women
- People who are in food-insecure households
- People who have gut absorption problems
- People who experience blood loss for any reason
- Women who experience heavy menstrual bleeding
- People who have cancer
Iron supplements can interact with several medications, including thyroid hormone replacement. Proton pump inhibitors can also reduce the absorption of plant-based iron.
One of the downsides of certain iron supplements, like ferrous sulfate, is an increased incidence of constipation. Iron supplements may also cause nausea or headaches.
(PPNF Note: When available, nutrition counseling is the best way to determine the supplements that are right for you. We understand that it is not always affordable or accessible. When taking supplements, follow recommended product guidelines unless a practitioner directs you otherwise.)
Today’s Simple Step
While oysters and sardines may be less common foods, they are rich in nutrients that make them a great dietary protein. If you have not tried them, or have not eaten them recently, consider adding one or both to your food rotation in the future.
This Beef Rutabaga Stew is an excellent iron-rich dish that is filling and convenient. One-dish meals are an easy way to put nutrient-dense foods on the table even in the midst of busy schedules.