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Nutrient - Focus on iron

By Jenny Bodenham BA (Hons) Dip ION MBANT

Iron is a mineral that is essential for the formation of haemoglobin, which is the red pigment in the blood. Haemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and transports carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs, so it is vital in supporting life. Iron is also essential for the regulation of cell growth and differentiation. The body contains between 3mg and 4mg of iron, of which 60-70% is circulating iron and the rest is stored in the liver, spleen and bone-marrow. Ferritin is a protein found inside cells that stores iron so your body can use it later. The amount of ferritin in your blood (serum ferritin level) is directly related to the amount of iron stored in the body.

Our need for iron varies throughout life. Children’s iron requirements are high, as iron is needed for strong muscles and production of blood. Iron requirements are greater in menstruating adolescents, adult women and pregnant women than they are post-menopause. Iron requirement in adult men is less than that of women and deficiency in men is uncommon.

Iron deficiency

Iron deficiency is the most widespread mineral nutritional deficiency in the UK. If the body is low in iron, fatigue, irritability and headaches may occur due to limited oxygen delivery to the cells. If the deficiency is severe, anaemia will result. Anaemia is caused by too few red blood cells or insufficient haemoglobin in the blood and causes fatigue, listlessness, faintness and shortness of breath. Other signs of iron- deficiency anaemia includepale complexion, abnormally smooth tongue, painful ulcers on the corners of the mouth, dry, flaking nails and spoon-shaped nails.

Food sources of Iron

There are two types of iron found in foods: haem iron, which is found in animal sources and is highly available for absorption, and non-haem iron, which is obtained from vegetable sources and is less available to the body.


Haem ironis found in:

  • Red meat, such as beef
  • Pork, beef and chicken liver
  • Sea food e.g. mussels, prawns
  • Sardines
  • Turkey

Non-haemiron is found in:

  • Beans and lentils
  • Dark leafy green vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds e.g. pumpkin seeds
  • Fortified cereals
  • Dried fruits e.g. apricots


Iron absorption

Iron absorption can be enhanced by consuming vitamin-C-containing foods or drinks at the same meal, such as a glass of orange juice. Good food sources of vitamin C include potatoes, Brussels sprouts and peppers, as well as fruits including strawberries, oranges and kiwi fruit.

Iron levels can be depleted by:

  • Tannins in tea and coffee, which bind with iron to reduce absorption
  •  Plant phytates, which are compounds found in fibrous foods, such as wheat bran and grains, that also bind to iron, reducing its absorption

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