Five Things You Should Know about Iron
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
You probably think of iron as just a rusty hunk of metal, so it may be hard to imagine that iron is also something we need to eat. Iron is a vitally important mineral, and many people simply don’t get as much as they should.
Iron’s number one job is to transport oxygen from the lungs to all the cells and tissues of the body, but equally important is its role in helping us extract energy from our food. So it makes sense that if we don’t eat properly and get enough iron, we might feel our energy flagging.
In general, adult men tend to get enough iron in the diet. Those who are less likely to meet their iron needs are growing kids, teenagers (especially girls), women of childbearing age and pregnant women.
With some attention to your diet, though, you can ensure that you’re meeting your body’s needs for this important mineral. Here are five things you should know about iron:
- If you associate iron with foods like red meat, you’d be right. Animal proteins like meat and poultry are the primary sources of iron in a typical diet. But there are plenty of good vegetarian sources, too. Beans, lentils, oatmeal, eggs, nuts, leafy green veggies and fortified cereal all provide iron.
- Generally speaking, animal sources of iron are better absorbed than the iron found in plant foods. But that’s not to say that vegetarians can’t get enough. Beans, green vegetables and fortified cereals can go a long way towards meeting needs.
- Vitamin C greatly enhances your body’s ability to absorb iron from plant foods. Vegetarians generally eat plenty of vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables, which may help explain how vegetarians who eat a well-balanced diet are able to meet their needs. Some winning combinations for vegetarians would be dishes like a stir-fry with iron-rich soybeans and broccoli, or a bowl of iron-fortified whole grain cereal with strawberries.
- Your body is able to adjust how much iron you take up, depending on your needs. When iron stores are waning, your body becomes more efficient at absorbing it, and when you’ve got plenty of iron on hand, you’ll take up less.
- Using cast-iron pots and pans can actually add a small amount iron to the foods you cook in them, especially if you cook the foods with a little acid. Cooking beans in a cast iron pot with some tomatoes would do the trick.