Iron is a vital mineral that plays a crucial role in maintaining good health, but so many of us aren’t getting enough of the stuff – particularly the veggos among us. Here's why how and when you eat your iron matters, how much you need, and our dos and don'ts for optimal absorption.
Iron is a key component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that binds to oxygen and carries it from the lungs to the rest of the body. This is essential for energy production and overall wellbeing – you’ll know when this process isn’t functioning properly as you’ll likely feel fatigued and short of breath. Let’s take a look at some of the other major roles of iron:
- Energy Production: Iron is involved in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body's primary energy currency. Without sufficient iron, energy levels can plummet.
- Brain Function: Iron supports cognitive function and development. In children, iron is critical for learning and memory.
Recommended Daily Iron Intake
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for iron varies by age, sex, and life stage. Here are the RDAs for different groups.
Infants (7-12 months): 11 mg
Children (1-18 years): 7-15 mg
Adult Men (19 years and older): 8 mg
Adult Women (19-50 years): 18 mg
Adult Women (51 years and older): 8 mg
Pregnant Women: 27 mg
You’ll notice women have quite a hefty dose to keep up with on the daily! If you’re in this group, you’re probably wondering how on earth you can meet that mark. We say it’s working smarter, not harder.
The Dos and Don’ts of Iron Absorption
- Pair Iron with Vitamin C: Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron, found in plant-based sources. Include vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, strawberries, and bell peppers in your meals.
- Cook in Cast Iron: Cooking acidic foods in cast iron cookware can slightly increase iron content in the meal.
- Eat Iron-Rich Plant Foods: If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, include iron-rich plant foods like beans, lentils, tofu, spinach, and fortified cereals.
- Space Iron and Calcium: Avoid consuming iron-rich foods and calcium-rich foods (e.g., dairy) at the same meal. Calcium can inhibit iron absorption.
- Consume Your Calcium with Your Iron: High-calcium foods, like dairy products, can interfere with iron absorption. Avoid overloading on dairy with iron-rich meals.
- Drink Tea or Coffee with Iron: The tannins in tea and coffee can inhibit iron absorption. Avoid drinking these beverages with or immediately after iron-rich meals.
- Take Calcium or Antacid Supplements with Iron: If you need to take calcium or antacid supplements, try to take them at least two hours apart from your iron supplements or iron-rich meals.
- Overcook Iron-Rich Foods: Overcooking can cause nutrient loss, including iron. Cook foods like spinach and broccoli lightly to preserve their iron content.
- Skip Breakfast: Eating iron-rich foods in the morning helps ensure that you have the energy needed for the day. Skipping breakfast might lead to inadequate iron intake.
Why Sugar is a Major Antinutrient
Sugar is often overlooked as one of the significant antinutrients in our diets. While substances like phytic acid and tannins found in legumes and tea are known to interfere with mineral absorption, such as iron, sugar's impact is often underestimated. Here's why your sugar habit could be affecting your iron absorption:
- Sugar and Non-Heme Iron: Iron in foods comes in two forms - heme iron (found in animal-based sources) and non-heme iron (found in plant-based sources and supplements). Sugar consumption primarily affects the absorption of non-heme iron, as heme iron is less influenced by antinutrients.
- Sugar Increases Insulin Levels: When we consume sugary foods or beverages, our blood sugar levels rise. To regulate this, our bodies release insulin. High levels of insulin can affect the body's iron-regulating hormone, hepcidin. Hepcidin controls the entry of iron into the bloodstream from intestinal cells. Elevated insulin due to excessive sugar consumption can lead to increased hepcidin levels, reducing iron absorption.
- Competitive Inhibition: Sugar competes with iron for absorption in the intestines. Both sugar and iron are absorbed through transporters in the gut. Excessive sugar intake can saturate these transporters, making it challenging for iron to pass through and enter the bloodstream
- Impact on Gut Microbiota: High sugar diets can alter the composition of gut bacteria, which may influence iron absorption. Some studies suggest that certain gut bacteria can trap dietary iron and reduce its bioavailability.
Now, for the foods you might not know play a major role in boosting our iron absorption.
Including citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits in your meals can significantly enhance iron absorption. Vitamin C, abundant in these fruits, aids in converting non-heme iron (the type found in plant-based foods) into a more absorbable form. For example, squeezing lemon juice on iron-rich foods, such as spinach or beans, can help you get more iron from your meal.
Tomatoes are a versatile food to enhance iron absorption. Pairing them with iron-rich sources like eggs in an omelette can optimise iron uptake. The vitamin C in tomatoes complements iron absorption, while their natural acidity can help break down plant-based iron sources, making it easier for the body to absorb.
Nettle tea is an unexpected but effective option for boosting iron absorption. Nettle leaves contain essential nutrients, including iron and vitamin C. The combination of iron and vitamin C in nettle tea can promote the body's ability to absorb dietary iron. Enjoy a cup of nettle tea alongside your iron-rich meals to reap the benefits. You’ll also get a good dose of vitamin K with your cup of nettle tea!
Onions contain a flavonoid called quercetin, which has been linked to improved iron absorption. Quercetin can help regulate iron metabolism and increase the absorption of non-heme iron, making it an excellent addition to a variety of dishes. This is because quercetin can form complexes with non-heme iron, which stabilises the iron and prevents it from forming insoluble complexes with other compounds in the gut, which can inhibit absorption – to put it simply, it means we have a better chance of absorbing the iron. By binding to non-heme iron, quercetin helps keep the iron in a bioavailable form, making it easier for the body to absorb.
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