What is Iron?
With the rise in popularity of plant-based diets, there’s a growing concern that you wouldn’t be getting enough iron in your everyday diet. Key to feeling full of vitality, strong and awake, is iron, a crucial nutrient the body requires to function optimally. The main purpose of iron is to carry oxygen around our body in the hemoglobin of red blood cells so cells can therefore produce energy. Iron also assists with the removal of carbon dioxide from our blood.
While iron is an essential nutrient that we can’t live without, the World Health organisation estimates that there are approximately two billion people worldwide that are actually deficient in iron. Imagine how much more energy our communities could be if we were all invigorated with a sufficient amount iron.
Why is it important and how does our body use it?
The role of iron in our body is to assist with basic cellular function in our bodily tissue.It has such an important role for our muscles, brain and red blood cells, as it carries oxygen between our lungs and tissues in our body. If you can imagine a balloon that is round and plump, then it shrivels, this is what happens when our red blood cells become deprived of the iron. When they are in this state the effected red blood cells fail to survive very long consequently meaning there is a loss of the number of red blood cells; commonly known as anaemia.
When we start to lack in iron, the lack of circulating oxygen has quite an impact on how we feel. Symptoms of being deficient in iron can include tiredness and exhaustion, feeling short of breath (given the lack of oxygen circulation), paleness, frequent cramps or muscle pain, having headaches and poor memory, low moods, anxiety, brain fog, the list goes on.
How can we ensure our iron intake is sufficient?
Including iron rich foods in our diets, and in a variety of forms is the best way to make sure we are getting enough iron. It isn’t just red meat that offers a source of iron, there are many other foods also that contain iron. These sources can be in the form of heme and non-heme in our food. Heme iron is found in animal sources of food, whereas non-heme iron is common in plant sources such as vegetables and grains and some fortified foods. Fortified foods is when iron is added to it to enrich it, similarly with supplements. When consuming iron (more specifically non-heme/ vegetarian sources), it is important to pair it with vitamin c rich foods to increase the absorption, due to the binding effect. Foods such as such as kiwifruit, citrus fruits, orange juice and capsicums are great sources to add with non-heme foods.
Some of us will need to take iron supplements if we have health conditions that can effect absorption of iron, such as coeliac or digestive issues, so it always pays to seek professional advice before self-diagnosing any health problems.
In terms of the bioavailability (the efficiency of absorption into our bloodstream), non-heme iron is not as efficient as iron is, hence why animal products are more common known to be more potent iron sources.