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Nutrition Catalog

Iron: An Essential Mineral

We generally have 3 to 4 grams of iron in our bodies. Of this amount, 65% is found in the blood, in the hemoglobin of our red blood cells, which works to transport oxygen. This iron found in our red blood cells is responsible for distributing the oxygen we obtain while breathing to all of the tissues and organs in the body. It is also present in muscle protein, myoglobin, which gives our muscles their red color, and is likewise stored in organs such as the liver.

Iron deficiency is quite common, affecting more than 2.1 billion people throughout the world, according to the WHO (World Health Organization). This iron deficiency, known also as iron deficiency anemia, is higher in groups of people with a higher growth rate (children and adolescent women) and in women of child-bearing age, in particular pregnant and breast-feeding women. Others who are also at risk of suffering iron deficiency are sportsmen and people who do not eat meat or who eat very little meat or meat products.

There are times when a standard diet does not provide the minimum required amount of iron. If we do not get enough iron through the food we eat, the body begins to gradually consume its reserves, which can eventually lead to iron deficiency anemia. This is the most common nutritional deficiency in a great majority of the population, especially in children (who are constantly growing), women of child-bearing age and sportsmen.

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Iron requirements vary greatly depending on the individual. Adolescents should consume between 10 and 18 mg of iron per day, while young children's needs are between 7 and 15 mg per day. Women need between 16 and 18 mg of iron per day, and as much as 20 - 22 mg if they are pregnant or breast-feeding.


Iron is present in foods in two different forms:

  • Heme iron is found in animal-based foods, which forms part of hemoglobin and myoglobin proteins. Heme iron is much more readily absorbed by the body than iron found in vegetable products, which means that the body benefits more from the iron from animal products than from vegetable products. Blood, entrails (liver, kidney, heart, etc.), meat, poultry and fish are all high in iron, and 40% of the iron found in the majority of these foods is heme iron.
  • Non heme iron is found in vegetable-based foods, primarily in pulses, nuts, grains and some leafy green vegetables. Vegetable iron is absorbed in very small quantities, meaning that the iron found in these products is not particularly beneficial to the body.

On average, 10% of our daily iron intake is heme iron from animal products, of which our bodies absorb more than 20%. It is therefore recommended that 25% of our iron intake should be heme iron. On the other hand, only 2-20% of non heme iron is absorbed, depending on iron reserves and other dietary factors. For example, if we consume iron-rich vegetables together with foods high in vitamin C, we help our body to absorb the non heme iron from these foods.

If our diet does not contain enough iron, we may suffer from a series of symptoms such as paleness, fatigue and dizziness. This is caused by an oxygen deficiency in our tissue due to a lack of iron in the blood which transports it.

To avoid problems of iron deficiency, a healthy, balanced diet should include foods rich in iron.


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