Iron is a mineral that is essential for growth and development of the body. A key part of many proteins and enzymes, it is critical for blood production, distribution and storage of oxygen within our bodies, muscle metabolism, and healthy connective tissue. Seeing as it is such an important part of our diets, it makes sense that this mineral can be consumed in a multitude of ways. You can find iron in foods it’s naturally present in, like cashews; fortified foods, like cereals; and as a dietary supplement.
Maintaining an appropriate amount of iron is important – too little leads to iron deficiency, which could lead to symptoms such as fatigue, lack of concentration, and headaches. Teenagers are part of the demographic most affected by iron deficiency. During the age range of 14 and 18 years a child’s muscle mass and blood volume expands, which requires an adequate amount of iron to keep up with their growing body. Girls require 15 mg a day while boys require 11 mg a day, a significant increase from the recommended 8 mg a day when they were aged 9-13.
Iron is an essential mineral in the production of blood. Its primary biological role is to help facilitate haemoglobin, a protein found in the red blood cells which are responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Iron also forms part of the myoglobin structure, which delivers oxygen to the muscles.
Iron is available in a variety of foods and the most popular natural sources are seafood, poultry, meat, nuts, green vegetables.
Iron Sources: Heme and Nonheme
Depending on whether a consumer eats a diverse diet with animal-based protein sources or a plant-based diet, the human body absorbs two types of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme is found in animal-based sources and nonheme is found in plant-based food. A list of Heme and NonHeme sources of iron foods can be seen below:
Heme Iron food
Red meats such as beef and lamb
Pork and ham
Oysters, clams and mussels
Chicken and turkey
Nonheme Iron foods
Raw and cooked spinach and kale
Pumpkins, squash or sesame seeds
Iron-fortified breakfast cereals, rice, breads and pastas
Cooked beans and lentils
Chickpeas, kidney beans and lima beans
Why is it important to have an adequate amount of iron in our body?
Because a lack of it can lead to anemia, one of the most common blood-related condition in the US. Anemia affects nearly 6 percent of the population, according to WebMD.
Anemia is caused by low count of red blood cells, which leads to tissues and organs not getting the required oxygen needed to function properly. This then starts a chain reaction that can lead to a general feeling of fatigue and weakness, and in some cases can even progress to fatal diseases.
In order to avoid anemia and the resulting medical issues, one can incorporate foods high in iron as part of their balanced diet. Almonds, brazil nuts, apricots, prunes, raisins are a few examples of great nonheme sources of iron. It is important to note that vegetarians require 1.8 times more iron than meat eaters because heme iron from meat is more bioavailable than nonheme iron from plant-based options. (National Institute of Health, 2016)
Lactating women (19-30 years): 9 mg/day (age 14 to 18: 10 mg/day)
Nuts are increasingly becoming a preferred source of important vitamins and minerals and it isn’t hard to see why. They help with heart health, weight control, lowering cholesterol, and more.
Some of the nuts that are rich in iron are as follows:
Cashews, apart from being rich in iron, also contain calcium, Vitamin-E, Omega-3 fatty acids and more. Cashews have 6.7 mg of Iron for every 100 grams. These kidney-shaped nuts, tropical to Brazil, are known to improve overall health and can help in the improvement of haemoglobin.
Walnuts are a great option for weight control and have 2.9 mg of Iron content for every 100 grams. It is recommended that one eats walnuts raw and not cooked as that would lead to the walnuts losing out on the health benefits, including absorption of the iron within them.
Peanuts have 4.6 mg of iron content for every 100 grams. One of the most common eaten nuts, if not the most, peanuts are a rich source of protein, important vitamins (E, B1, B6) in addition to iron. Word of caution however as peanut kernels have phytic acid that may impair the absorption of iron.
A member of the Cashew family, Pistachios contain about 3.9 mg of iron for every 100 grams. One of the healthiest nuts out there, they help in weight management. In fact, pistachios contain less than four calories for each nut.