Iron is a vital nutrient for good health, not least for making the red blood cells that transport oxygen around our bodies. However, a lack of iron can lead to tiredness and fatigue as well as a condition called iron deficiency anaemia.
In this guide, we explore a little more about iron and discover some lesser-known facts about this essential mineral.
Why your body needs the mineral iron
Iron is essential for our health and can be found in a nutritionally balanced diet. It is one of the key minerals our bodies need to function normally, and insufficient levels can cause extreme tiredness and fatigue.
The key roles iron plays in the human body include:
- Supporting the normal function of red blood cells and haemoglobin, as well as the transportation of oxygen to tissues around the body
- Supporting an effective immune system
- Contributing to normal cognitive function (EFSA, 2010).
The recommended daily iron intake
Women of menstruating age will need more iron per day than men or post-menopausal women. According to the NHS, the recommended amount of iron needed per day is:
- Men over 18: 8.7mg
- Women aged 19-50: 14.8mg
- Women over 50: 8.7mg
As an essential mineral for good health, you should be able to get the daily recommended amount of iron through a healthy, balanced diet. However, for women who experience heavy periods or anyone who would like to ensure sufficient daily intake can benefit from adding iron supplements to their daily routine.
Natural food sources of iron
Just like most of the essential nutrients your body needs, you should be able to obtain most, if not all, your daily recommended amount of iron through your diet.
Plant-based foods that are rich in iron include beans (such as kidney beans and chickpeas), fortified cereals, dried fruit, nuts, spinach, and broccoli. Meanwhile iron can also be found in quality animal protein including chicken, liver, lean red meat, mackerel, and canned tuna.
Lesser-known facts about iron
To help you understand a little more about this wonder mineral, here are two facts about iron you may not have known:
1. There are actually two forms of iron
The iron we can absorb into our body comes in two forms which are known as heme iron and non-heme iron. The difference between the two is where they are sourced from.
Heme iron comes from animal meat or seafood protein and is readily absorbed into your system, whereas non-heme iron is plant-based and sourced from vegetables, legumes, and wholegrains. However, non-heme iron is not so easily absorbed by the body unless combined with foods rich in vitamin C.
2. Some eating habits can limit your absorption of iron
It is possible for even your healthy eating habits to inhibit the effectiveness of iron in your body. The outer coating of nuts, legumes, seeds, and grains contain natural chemicals called phytates which can interfere with iron absorption.
Meanwhile large amounts of calcium – in a supplement, for example – can also block the effectiveness of iron. And your favourite beverages, including black tea, coffee, and some herbal teas, can also have an impact as they contain plant substances called polyphenols which hinder your body’s ability to absorb the iron it needs.