Iron is a mineral that is found in every living cell. Iron exists in two forms—heme and nonheme. Heme iron is part of the hemoglobin and myoglobin molecules in animal tissues. Nonheme iron comes from animal tissues other than hemoglobin and myoglobin and from plant tissues. Iron is found in meats, eggs, milk, vegetables, grains, and other plant foods. The body absorbs heme iron much more efficiently than nonheme iron. Much of the iron in our diet comes from foods, such as breads and cereals that are fortified with this mineral. Worldwide, iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of malnutrition.
Iron's functions include:
- In hemoglobin, carrying oxygen to cells throughout the body
- In myoglobin, holding oxygen within the cells, especially heart and skeletal muscle cells
- Forming collagen, which is the major protein that makes up connective tissue, cartilage, and bone
- Helping fight infection by synthesizing certain enzymes needed for immune function
- Helping convert beta carotene to vitamin A
- Helping make amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein
- Aiding drug detoxification pathways in the liver
- Forming part of an enzyme that is essential for the production of several neurotransmitters
- Synthesizing cellular components that are important to metabolism
Iron needs are greatest during times of rapid growth—childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy. Also, women have higher requirements than men, to replace the iron that is lost with monthly menstruation.
Groups of people who are susceptible to being iron deficient are:
- Women of childbearing years
- Teenage girls
- Infants (depending on their diet)
- Low-income groups
- People with certain gastrointestinal conditions such as celiac disease
There are no symptoms of iron deficiency unless you become anemic. If not corrected, iron deficiency can progress to anemia. Symptoms of anemia include:
- Fatigue: feeling tired all the time or getting tired easily with activities you used to be able to do without difficulty
- Pale skin, especially the pink lining to your lower eyelids, under your fingernails, or your gums
- Glossitis (an inflamed tongue)
- Rapid heartbeat
- A ringing in the ears known as tinnitus
- Unusual cravings for substances like ice, dirt, etc. (called pica)
Iron-deficiency anemia is usually treated by increasing iron intake through dietary sources and iron supplementation.
At high levels, iron is toxic. And since the body has no effective means of excreting excess iron, it is possible, although not common, for iron to build up. Iron pills and supplements containing iron that are designed for adults can cause poisoning in children.
Symptoms of iron toxicity include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Abdominal pain
Major Food Sources
Food Sources of Mostly Heme Iron
Food Sources of Nonheme Iron
Other Health Implications Related to Iron
People with the genetic disease hemochromatosis absorb excessive amounts of iron. This leads to a buildup of iron in the bloodstream and in certain organs, including the liver, muscles, pancreas, and heart. Signs and symptoms of disease usually do not appear until midlife. People of Northern European descent and men are at higher risk. Without treatment, high levels of iron can damage these organs. Treatment involves eating a diet low in iron and donating blood regularly.
Heart Disease and Cancer
Some research has suggested that excess levels of iron in the body may lead to an increased risk for heart disease or cancer. These effects may be due to how the body metabolizes iron, as opposed to how much iron is in the diet. However, the research in these areas is still inconclusive.
Tips for Increasing Your Iron Intake
The amount of iron your body absorbs varies depending on several factors. For example, your body will absorb more iron from foods when your iron stores are low and will absorb less when stores are sufficient.
In addition, certain dietary factors affect absorption:
- Heme iron is absorbed more efficiently than nonheme iron.
- Heme iron enhances the absorption of nonheme iron.
- Vitamin C enhances the absorption of nonheme iron.
Some substances decrease the absorption of nonheme iron:
- Oxalic acid, found in spinach and chocolate (However, oxalic acid is broken down with cooking.)
- Phytic acid, found in wheat bran and beans (legumes)
- Tannins, found in tea
- Polyphenols, found in coffee
Note: Consuming heme iron and/or vitamin C with nonheme can help compensate for these decreases.
To increase your intake and absorption of dietary iron, try the following:
- Combine heme and nonheme sources of iron.
Eat foods rich in vitamin C with nonheme iron sources. Good sources of vitamin C include:
- Bell peppers
- Oranges and orange juice
- Tomatoes and tomato juice
- Spinach and collard greens
- If you drink coffee or tea, do so between meals rather than with a meal.
- Cook acidic foods in cast iron pots. This can increase iron content up to 30 times.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 07/2014 -
- Update Date: 07/15/2014 -