Iron 101: All about low iron levels, iron deficiency anemia and iron in foods

The World Health Organization estimates that 80 per cent of the global population may not get enough iron, resulting in low iron levels and iron deficiency anemia. Is your iron knowledge a little rusty? Find out about what iron does for your health and foods that contain iron, plus how much iron you need.

By Cara Rosenbloom

How much iron do you need?
This story was originally titled "Iron," in the March 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

The World Health Organization estimates that 80 per cent of the global population may not get enough iron, making iron deficiency the number 1 nutritional disorder. Is your iron knowledge a little rusty? Here's what you need to know about this important nutrient.

1. Iron is an essential mineral in the diet.
It's a vital component of all blood cells, and it helps carry oxygen to vital organs. A lack of iron can cause iron-deficiency anemia, which is characterized by weakness, irritability and decreased energy. Even a mild iron deficiency can affect work performance and learning ability and lower resistance to infections.

2. Women, men and children all need different amounts of iron.
Iron is an important mineral for everyone, but it is especially important for pregnant women and babies to ensure infant growth and development. Men need less iron than women since they store more of it and women lose iron through menstruation.
   
3. Vegetarians need more iron than nonvegetarians.
There are two types of iron: heme iron, found in meat, fish and poultry; and nonheme iron, from vegetables, fruit and grains. The body can absorb as much as 30 per cent of the iron from heme sources but only about five per cent of nonheme iron.

4. Eating spinach may hinder iron absorption.
Even though spinach, legumes and pasta are good sources of nonheme iron, these foods contain compounds called phytates and oxalates, which hinder the absorption of that iron. However, you can always boost absorption by adding a food that's rich in vitamin C – for example, strawberries, oranges or peppers – to the iron-rich foods.

There are other ways to boost iron absorption, too; for example, mixing a food that's a good source of heme iron with one that's a nonheme iron source. (The heme iron helps the body absorb the nonheme iron.) So meat and potatoes are a great combination.

Tea, coffee and soy also decrease iron absorption from nonheme foods. So it might be a good idea to drink your latte separately from your meal.

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