Original post : 3 Jan 2013

Understanding Iron

Iron is needed by the body to ensure that oxygen gets carried to all parts of the body. Iron is a component of haemoglobin which is found in red blood cells and helps to transport oxygen around the body to cells and to the muscles.   

Low iron stores can affect anybody but it is important to be particularly aware of the part it plays in growth and development. It is important to ensure that children, both preschool and school aged children are not deficient as they are most of risk.  Between six months and three years rapid growth is taking place and iron that might have been received from being breast fed is no longer available. After three years, growth is slower but still occurring and iron is needed to increase their quantity of red blood cells.  In puberty growth is rapid, (more so in boys) and iron is needed to support the growing need of tissue growth and increased blood volume.

Women in pregnancy are often low in iron as the growing foetus will take whatever iron it needs from the expectant mother. However pregnant women are closely monitored.  Teenage girls and women who menstruate are classed as high risk, and should ensure they are eating a healthy balanced diet and if concerned they should get a blood test from the doctor to check their iron status.

The other age group that may be at risk of low iron status is the over sixty fives.  This may be due to medication taken, medical conditions such as ulcers or tumours or simply that appetite has decreased and a not enough nutrients are being consumed.  

It is estimated that over 2 billion people in the world are iron deficient.  The main reason for this is that there are two main types of iron, haem and non haem iron.  Haem iron is readily absorbed by the body and is available from animal sources, although the amounts present will differ, calf’s  liver for instance will have around 8 mg of iron per 100g, whereas a lamb chop will have around 2 mg per 100g.  Pregnant women however should not eat liver, due to the high levels of vitamin A. 

Vegetarians who chose to eat a meatless diet and for those in developing countries, who generally have no choice, but to eat a plant based diet will be eating  non haem iron.  Non haem iron is poorly absorbed by the diet, and although there are factors that can aid with its absorption there are also those that can inhibit it.

The best way to aid non haem iron absorption is to drink a glass of fruit juice at the same time.  Vitamin C is a great enhancer of iron and aids absorption. 

To ensure that iron is easily absorbed, do not drink, tea (particularly black), coffee or red wine when eating iron rich foods or taking iron tablets.  These all have a process that inhibits iron absorption.  

Although haem iron is the most readily absorbed form and is mainly found in red meat, this is a food not to be eaten on a daily basis,  As with everything, it is in moderation.  Iron can be absorbed from both chicken and fish, (ry and eat oily fish twice a week)  and vegetarians can have very good iron status.  The reason being is that if eating a diet high in fruit and vegetables, the amount of vitamin C in your gut will be high which allows for greater absorption of iron . A very good reason to increase the amount of fruit or vegetables that are eaten.  Vitamin C is easily lost however so make sure that vegetables are only cut up at the last minute to avoid oxidation and if boiling them use the cooking water to make a sauce or a soup..  

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