Pumping Iron

Iron is a mineral that is vital to your health. It is in every one of your cells, primarily linked with protein in the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin. Your body contains approximately 4 grams of iron.

Iron is vital for:

  • Oxygen distributionIron is the core of hemoglobin molecules, which are the oxygen-carrying components of your red blood cells. Red blood cells use iron in the hemoglobin molecule to pick up oxygen from your lungs and distribute the oxygen to tissues throughout your body. If you lack iron, you will produce less hemoglobin, and therefore supply less oxygen to your tissues. Iron is also an important component of another protein called myoglobin. Myoglobin, like hemoglobin, is an oxygen-carrying molecule that distributes oxygen to muscles cells, especially to skeletal muscles and to the heart.
  • Energy production: As a component of several enzymes, including iron catalase, iron peroxidase, and the cytochrome enzymes, iron plays a vital role in producing energy. It is also involved in the production of carnitine, a nonessential amino acid that is important for helping you use fat.
  • Immune system function: Your body requires sufficient iron for the differentiation and proliferation of T lymphocytes. These white blood cells, often referred to as T cells, play an important role in immune function. Iron also plays a role in the generation of hypochlorous acid, a beneficial reactive oxygen species that white blood cells use to kill pathogens.
  • DNA synthesis: Your body requires ribonucleotide reductase, an iron-dependent enzyme, for proper DNA synthesis. Through its assistance in DNA synthesis, iron has an indirect role on many important body functions, including immune function, healing, growth, and reproduction. It even promotes healthy scalp and hair.
  • A stable mood: Its highest concentrations in the brain are located in areas related to mood and memory.

Although your body conserves iron very well by reusing iron from old red blood cells to make hemoglobin for new red blood cells, iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States and around the world. Poor iron status may be caused by inadequate intake, poor absorption, parasitic infection, or medical conditions that cause internal bleeding. People who donate blood regularly, women with excessive menstrual bleeding, those who use medications (for example, antacids) that interfere with the absorption of iron, and pregnant and lactating women may be at risk for iron deficiency. In addition, the elderly and children often have inadequate intake of this mineral.

Iron deficiency causes microcytic and hypochromic anemia, a condition characterized by underdeveloped red blood cells that lack hemoglobin, thereby reducing their oxygen-carrying capacity. But even before iron deficiency anemia develops, people with poor iron status may experience a variety of symptoms including fatigue, weakness, loss of stamina, decreased ability to concentrate, increased susceptibility to infections, hair loss, dizziness, headaches, brittle nails, apathy, and depression. People with poor iron intake may also demonstrate an unusual eating behavior called pica, in which they eat unsuitable materials such as dirt, clay, laundry starch, charcoal, or lead paint chips. In children, iron deficiency is associated with learning disabilities and a lower IQ.

Iron poisoning, caused by ingesting large quantities of iron-containing supplements, causes nausea, vomiting, damage to the lining of your intestinal tract, shock, and liver failure, and is a leading cause of death among children. Chronic iron overload, or excessive iron storage, can cause a variety of symptoms including loss of appetite, fatigue, weight loss, headaches, bronze or gray hue to the skin, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. Chronic iron toxicity probably occurs only in people who require regular blood transfusions, take iron supplements, or in those with a genetic iron storage disorder called hemachromatosis. With hemochromatosis, iron is deposited in tissues throughout the body, most notably the liver, pancreas, and heart, potentially causing cirrhosis, diabetes, or heart problems. Although iron overload is not likely to develop from food sources alone, men, because they do not experience iron losses, may be at greater risk for the problems associated with excessive iron. Excess iron intake and storage, especially in men, has been implicated as a cause of heart disease and cancer. In addition, iron has been found in increased levels in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Your body automatically increases iron absorption when you have an increased physiological need for iron, for example, in children during rapid growth periods and during pregnancy and lactation. Iron absorption is decreased in people with low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), a condition that is common in the elderly and those who use antacids frequently. In addition, iron absorption can be decreased by caffeine and by tannins found in coffee and tea. People with healthy iron status need not worry about the impact of tea tannins on their iron absorption. People who are iron deficient, however, should wait at least one hour after a meal before drinking green or black tea. Phosphates found in carbonated soft drinks can also decrease iron absorption.

The best way to increase your absorption of iron is to ensure that you consume sufficient vitamin C. A meal that contains about 25 milligrams of vitamin C may as much as double your absorption of iron from that meal. Your body uses copper to help transport iron around your body, and iron-deficiency anemia may sometimes reflect the more basic underlying problem of copper deficiency. Vitamin A may also help improve iron status, and perhaps because of their relationship to stomach acidity levels, so might amino acids and organic acids (like citric acid or malic acid). 

You may have trouble absorbing iron in the presence of too much calcium (300 milligrams or more). People with high iron requirements might want to avoid taking calcium supplements alongside of meals. Other nutrients that can lower absorption of plant iron include polyphenols (like tannins) and soy proteins. Phytates, found in whole grains, legumes and other seeds, may also decrease iron absorption by forming compounds with the mineral that cannot be absorbed through your digestive tract. Soaking seeds overnight can reduce the phytates in food and increase the absorption of iron. Beta-carotene can also improve the availability of iron from grains. Eating one medium-sized carrot (about 50 grams) along with each cup of cooked rice  results in a 50% increase in the availability of iron. Oxalates, found in spinach and chocolate, may also decrease iron absorption. However, you are still able to absorb helpful amounts of iron from plant foods that contain any or several of these nutrients, and foods like spinach, whole wheat, whole grain rice, soybeans, and other legumes are still very much worth eating, even when iron absorption from these foods is less than 100%. Much of the iron in whole grains is found in the bran and germ. As a result, the milling of grain, which removes the bran and germ, eliminates about 75% of the naturally occurring iron in whole grains.  Refined grains are often fortified with iron, but the added iron is less absorbable than the iron that naturally occurs in the grain. Cooking with iron cookware will also add iron to food.

Excellent food sources of iron include soybeans, lentils, spinach, tofu, sesame seeds, chickpeas, lima beans, olives, navy beans, chard, kidney beans, black beans, thymeasparagus, pumpkin seeds, and cumin. Very good sources of iron include black strap molassses, collards, green peas, dulse, leeks, turmeric, and oregano. Good sources of iron include Brussels sprouts, black pepper, basil, kale, turnip greens, green beans, mustard greens, Romaine lettuce, rosemary, dill, broccoli, sea vegetables, tomatoes, parsley, and cauliflower.

Food

Serving

Calories

Amount

DV

Size

(mg)

 
Soybeans

1 cup cooked

297.6

8.84

49.1%

Lentils

1 cup cooked

229.7

6.59

36.6%

Spinach

1 cup cooked

41.4

6.43

35.7%

Tofu

4 oz-wt

86.2

6.08

33.8%

Sesame Seeds

0.25 cup

206.3

5.24

29.1%

Chickpeas

1 cup cooked

269

4.74

26.3%

Lima Beans

1 cup cooked

216.2

4.49

24.9%

Olives

1 cup

154.6

4.44

24.7%

Navy Beans

1 cup cooked

254.8

4.3

23.9%

Chard

1 cup cooked

35

3.96

22%

Kidney Beans

1 cup cooked

224.8

3.93

21.8%

Black Beans

1 cup cooked

227

3.61

20.1%

Pinto Beans

1 cup cooked

244.5

3.57

19.8%

Thyme

2 tsp

7.7

3.46

19.2%

Asparagus

1 cup raw

26.8

2.87

15.9%

Pumpkin Seeds

0.25 cup

180.3

2.84

15.8%

Cumin

1 tsp

15.8

2.79

15.5%

Blackstrap Molasses

2 tsp

32.1

2.39

13.3%

Collards

1 cup cooked

49.4

2.2

12.2%

Green Peas

1 cup raw

115.7

2.12

11.8%

Dulse

1/3 cup dried

18

2

11%

Leeks

1 cup raw

54.3

1.87

10.4%

Turmeric

2 tsp

15.6

1.82

10.1%

Oregano

2 tsp

9.5

1.32

7.3%

Brussels Sprouts

1 cup raw

37.8

1.23

6.8%

Black Pepper

2 tsp

10.7

1.21

6.7%

Basil

2 tsp

7

1.18

6.6%

Kale

1 cup cooked

36.4

1.17

6.5%

Turnip Greens

1 cup cooked

28.8

1.15

6.4%

Beets

1 cup raw

58.5

1.09

6.1%

Green Beans

1 cup raw

31

1.03

5.7%

Mustard Greens

1 cup cooked

21

0.98

5.4%

Romaine Lettuce

2 cups

16

0.91

5.1%

Rosemary

2 tsp

7.9

0.7

3.9%

Dill

2 tsp

12.8

0.69

3.8%

Broccoli

1 cup raw

30.9

0.66

3.7%

Fennel

1 cup raw

27

0.64

3.6%

Sea Vegetables

0.25 cup

8.6

0.57

3.2%

Tomatoes

1 cup raw

32.4

0.49

2.7%

Parsley

2 tbs

2.7

0.47

2.6%

Cauliflower

1 cup raw

26.8

0.45

2.5%


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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