Iron is pretty common in nature and important to health since like, forever. Despite its relative abundance and low-cost it’s one of the most common deficiencies worldwide 🤦🏼♀️ (here we could segue into a discussion about recommendations, whether people are actually deficient based on these numbers, the impact of ferritin stores on absorption and how we can truly measure iron status….but it’s a bit deep for this post. Professionals/lay people who love to chat about iron hit me up).
So. Something helpful….
Iron is mostly used to make blood (of course) and various enzymes💉
It is not excreted (as opposed to things like vitamin c which is water-soluble and excreted - bye bye expensive supplements) so when you ‘need’ it, your body increases absorption from food, and when you don’t, it restricts it. Cool huh.
🔩 Iron in food is divided into two types – heme and non-heme. Largely, this is split between animal (heme) and plant (non-heme) sources. This is important because they are absorbed differently in the body.
🥩 Heme iron has a higher absorption percentage than non-heme and is not as reliant on other dietary components as non-heme.
🌱Non-heme iron has been shown to have a whole range of absorption % depending on the person and the research, but assuming it is 20% there are a few ways it can be affected:
🆒 Eating non-heme iron with ascorbic acid (AKA vitamin C) can increase absorption. This could be like mixing a red pepper in with your kale (it’s an example, not a rule).
❗️Phytates and some phenolic compounds can bind iron, rendering it insoluble/impossible to absorb.
🔆 Now, I can do a post on antioxidants another time, but suffice to say yes they are important, no they aren’t a cure all for everything. Anyway, back to the p words, and I’ll add another one – Popeye. See he ate a lot of spinach, but it was always out of a tin wasn’t it, not raw. He was also a cartoon but whatever.
🌱 Phytates are reduced when you cook spinach, increasing the amount available to absorb. There’s nothing wrong with raw spinach, but if you are eating it to increase your iron intake you might want to try a different tack. Equally, that lovely cuppa. Delicious after lunch, but it might be worth just waiting a bit – see it is full of antioxidants (catechins) and these can bind to iron.
🍽 How much should I have?
ℹ️ Recommendations vary – for adult (aged 19-50) men 8.7 mg/day and for adult women 14.8mg/day although some may find they need more around their period. This number is designed to meet the needs of the many, so there are exceptions! Genetic disorders such as hemochromatosis can affect iron status. Iron deficiency can be a symptom of other things - speak to your GP or a qualified professional!
📵 PLEASE NOTE: this post, whilst great, is no substitute for real life advice. If you suspect you have a deficiency book in with your gp.
References: Hurrell & Egli (2010) The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 91, Issue 5, 1 May 2010, Pages 1461S–1467S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.28674F