The mineral iron has many functions in the body. It is an essential part of haemoglobin - the substance which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is also required for energy metabolism and is necessary for the neurological development of developing embryos. Iron is also important in maintaining the normal functioning of the immune system.
Many foods contain iron, therefore eating a wide range of foods can help most people meet their needs for this nutrient. Iron from animal sources (haem iron) is more easily absorbed than iron from plant sources (non-haem iron). Phytates (in cereals and pulses), fibre, tannins (in tea and coffee) and calcium can bind non-haem iron, which results in less absorption. Vitamin C increases absorption of non-haem iron.
A deficiency in iron leads to anaemia. The symptoms of anaemia are feeling tired and weak, decreased work and school performance, slow cognitive and social development during childhood, difficulty maintaining body temperature, decreased immune function, which increases susceptibility to infection and glossitis (an inflamed tongue).
Iron is stored in the body and large amounts can be toxic. The amount of iron absorbed in the intestine is usually carefully regulated. High doses of iron can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and constipation.
Red meat is the richest source of iron. Therefore if you are vegetarian you should make a special effort to include other sources of iron in your diet. Iron is found in fortified cereals, nuts, seeds, dried beans, dried fruit (apricots, peaches, raisins, and prunes) and dark green leafy vegetables. Cooking with iron pots and pans also increases the amount of iron consumed.
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