Why do I need iron? What you need to know about the essential mineral

If you’re feeling tired and looking a little pale, you could have an iron deficiency. Here’s why you need to keep your levels topped up – and how to do it.

Iron is an extremely important part of our daily intake of vitamins and minerals as it helps to make the red blood cells which take oxygen around the body.

[Read more: 5 vitamins and minerals you need more of as you age]

But many people don’t get enough iron in their diet – and lack of iron is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the UK. Here’s what you need to know:

What is iron and why is it important?

Iron helps the normal functioning of the immune system and is needed for the production of haemoglobin in red blood cells, which carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles.

If iron stores are low, normal haemoglobin production slows downs, and the transportation of oxygen around the body drops, causing symptoms such as fatigue and tiredness. A lack of iron can lead to the iron deficiency called anaemia.

Since our body can’t produce iron itself, we need to make sure we consume sufficient amounts of iron in our diet. The recommended intake of iron is 14.8mg for women and 8.7mg for men.

According to the producers of iron-rich mineral water Spatone, most people don’t realise that substances in certain foods can inhibit the absorption of iron, such as:

Teas (tannin) and coffee (caffeine); Dairy foods and supplements containing calcium; Raw cereal (phytates); Carbonated drinks (phosphates).

[Read more: 8 scary signs you're not getting enough vitamin D]

Who needs extra iron?

Women need more iron than men due to menstrual blood loss and pregnancy. Pregnant women can be prone to low iron levels because the baby needs iron to grow.

Runners need to ensure they get enough iron because of ‘footstrike hemolysis’ (repeated pounding of the feet on a hard surface which can damage red blood cells) and iron loss through sweating and urine.

Growth spurts, picky eaters and children not getting enough iron-rich food can lead to some children having low iron levels. Iron requirements also increase dramatically during puberty to cater for rapid growth.

As we get older, our capacity to absorb iron diminishes. This, coupled with a reduction in appetite, can lead to less-than-ideal iron levels in the over-60s.

[Read more: Red wine and Bombay mix – the easy way to boost your iron intake]

Good sources of iron

Besides meat, there is no shortage of iron in vegetables. Pulses (e.g. peas, beans and lentils) and soya bean products (e.g. soya milk and tofu) provide an excellent source of iron. Dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. broccoli and pak choy), wholegrains (e.g. wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholemeal pasta), dried fruits (raisins, prunes, apricots and figs), black treacle and plain dark chocolate are also good sources of iron.

Too much iron in your diet can cause constipation, so always consult your GP if you’re concerned - and before taking supplements.

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