Iron: benefits, deficiencies, anemia and foods to eat

Iron: benefits, deficiencies, anemia and foods to eat

Trace element essential to the proper functioning of the body, iron raises many questions, especially among people at risk of anemia: vegetarians, pregnant women, the elderly… So how to get it naturally via feed ? Find out everything you need to know about iron here.

Iron: definition, role and benefits for our body

Iron is a trace element present in very small quantities in our body but essential for its proper functioning, because it promotes oxygenation of the blood of cells and muscles. It is also a cofactor of certain enzymes involved in many metabolic reactions, such as the synthesis and degradation of amino acids and proteins. It also acts on:

  • The synthesis of thehemoglobina protein in red blood cells that transports and stores oxygen to all organs in our body. It also allows the body to regulate the response to hypoxia (lack of oxygen). The synthesis of hemoglobin represents 70% of the body’s total iron;
  • L’muscle action : iron helps to synthesize myoglobin (red muscle pigment), a protein that brings oxygen to the muscles. This represents 6% of the total iron in the body. Myoglobin is therefore the main intracellular transporter of oxygen in the muscles and stores the oxygen which they sorely need to function;
  • The immune defenses : with its antioxidant and pro-oxidant function, iron is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system;
  • The vitality and tone : iron helps to fight against fatigue because it has an action on energy metabolism by participating in the synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the molecule which ensures cellular functioning by providing energy to cells);
  • The brain functioning : by contributing to the development and maintenance of cognitive functions such as concentration, memory or even learning.
  • The pregnancy : iron contributes to the growth of the baby.

Transferrin and ferritin: knowing how to distinguish the different proteins

You should know that if iron is free in the body, it can be toxic and dangerous. This is why it does not like to be alone and therefore binds to 4 essential proteins, each with a specific role: hemoglobin, myoglobin (which we saw above), transferrin and ferritin.

The transferrin is the “means of transport” of iron. It is made by the liver and transports iron to the bone marrow where the forming red blood cells await it. Thus, when it is found, during blood tests, that the saturation level of transferrin is too low (less than 30%), this means that the body lacks iron.

The ferritin is the “storage” which represents between 0.4 to 1g of iron. This protein is made by the liver and stored 1/3 in the liver, 1/3 in the bone marrow (where iron participates in the formation of red blood cells which will live for 120 days), and also in the cells of the spleen which regulate the number of blood cells and destroy them if there are too many, and 1/3 in the muscles.

What are our daily iron needs?

The human body contains 2.5 to 4 grams of iron. Humans need an average intake of 2 to 3 mg of iron per day.but these needs can vary according to gender, age, physical activity, but also the time of life. For example, the needs are higher in pregnant women, children during their growth, athletes, during menstruation in women or even in the elderly.

In summary, the average iron requirements:

  • about 1 to 2 mg in men;
  • 2 to 4 mg approximately in women between puberty and menopause, due to menstruation;
  • 6mg during pregnancy.
To note : A varied and balanced diet provides about 10 to 15 mg of iron per day, but only 5 to 10% is absorbed by the body.

Iron: how to properly assimilate it in the body?

The combinations of certain cofactors are to be favored so that the iron acts fully in the body. In particular, you can associate it with:

  • A to vitamin C to maximize absorption. For example: put a little lemon on your plate of spinach;
  • With copperwhich will also promote the absorption of iron. It is mainly found in cooked calf’s or lamb’s liver, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, sesame, offal, squid, crab…
  • Cobaltimportant mineral too. It is found in: sour cherries, dates, very ripe tomatoes, red wine (in moderation), black grapes…
  • manganesealso an essential trace element found in spices, seaweed, cereals, oilseeds, dark chocolate, etc.

Beware of tea and coffee, which block the absorption of iron. It is best to consume them 2 hours away from meals or supplements.

Heme and non-heme iron, what is the difference?

heme iron comes from animals: it is the myoglobin of red meats. It is the best assimilated by the body, so it has a high “bio-availability”. Bound to red blood cells and muscle cells, it is 25% absorbed by the intestine.

non-heme iron comes from plants and eggs. Only 10% assimilable by the intestine, it is better absorbed if it binds to vitamin C. Warning: vegetarians and vegans risk becoming deficient more easily.

Anemia: how to recognize an iron deficiency?

Symptoms that can point to iron deficiency anemia are:

  • Fatigue,
  • Sleeping troubles,
  • Hair loss,
  • Lack of concentration,
  • Exhaustion,
  • Pale skin,
  • Headache,
  • More fragile nail,
  • Palpitation,
  • Recurrent infections
  • greater nervousness

If you are iron deficient, you will not have enough hemoglobin and so you will have anemia due to lack of red blood cells. The level is checked via a blood test which measures the level of ferritin in the blood. In men, it is normally between 20 and 200 µg/l, in women between 10 and 125 µg/l (20 to 200 µg after menopause). Below, there is deficiency.

To know

Never supplement if you don’t have a deficiency! Too much iron in the blood can cause the formation of free radicals, and increase the risk of heart disease.

The 15 foods richest in iron

  • clams : with 28mg/100g
    Good for the palate and for the health! Rich in protein, zinc, iodine, calcium, omega-3, B12, they are low in calories. Beware of allergic reactions in the most sensitive because they contain tropomyosins, proteins that are resistant to cooking;
  • The black pudding : 20mg/100g
    Black pudding could have its place in the superfood category! Composed of blood, black pudding is very rich in protein, calcium, zinc, potassium and magnesium, essential trace elements for our body. It has no carbohydrates in its composition, perfect for the ketogenic diet!
  • spirulina : 70 to 150mg/100g
    Sweet seaweed, very rich in minerals and vitamins, chlorophyll, and trace elements, it is easily assimilated by the body. To sprinkle on salads, soups or in a vegetable juice;
  • The dried basil : 42mg/100g
    An ally of digestion, but also rich in antioxidants, it prevents premature aging of body cells, also helps relieve headaches and avoid the effects of stress. Less known, the basil is very rich in vitamin K, necessary for the manufacture of proteins involved in blood coagulation;
  • The some : 20-40m/100g
    These mineral concentrates (especially iodine, a mineral that the thyroid needs to function) are very interesting for their protein, vitamin C, A, E, B and antioxidant properties. So do not hesitate to sprinkle your dishes with seaweed. Be careful, however, if you are hyperthyroid, and if you are taking anticoagulant medication. Also favor French seaweed for their quality;
  • The liver : 14mg/100g
    Contribution ++ in: vitamin A, B2, B5, B9, B12, D, Copper, Phosphorus and Zinc. It also has a very low glycemic index. On the other hand, being rich in vitamin A, cholesterol, saturated fats and uric acid, it is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, and in case of cholesterol or gout;
  • The Oysters : 12mg/100g
    All the trace elements are found in high doses in the oyster. Easy to digest, it is an anti-fatigue, replenishing and low-calorie food, which combines taste pleasures and nutritional interests. Prohibited for pregnant women;
  • The cocoa : 12mg/100g
    Ideal when you need a little sweet touch at the end of a meal, dark chocolate over 70% also provides magnesium and antioxidants;
  • The parsley : 10mg/100g
    Rich in carotene which is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, parsley is a very good source of chlorophyll (detoxifying and anti-fatigue), vitamin A (sight) and C (immune system), calcium (bone health ), magnesium (ally of the nervous system), Remember to include it regularly in your preparations, it goes very well with many foods;
  • L’egg : 6mg/100g
    A wonderful source of protein (because it has all 9 essential amino acids) for vegetarians, the egg ticks a lot of health boxes! Antioxidant, vitamin D, E, B, calcium, phosphorus, selenium and even omega-3, it is ideal for breakfast (and keeping the yolk runny!);
  • lentils : 9mg/100g
    Belonging to legumes, they are also rich in fiber and antioxidants, and protect the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals. For people whose digestive system is fragile, remember to soak them before cooking them;
  • Chickpea : 8mg/100g
    Also belonging to the legume family, they are particularly interesting for pregnant women because in addition to iron, they provide a good amount of B9 (folic acid). Also, their low glycemic index is beneficial for weight control and for diabetics. For digestive systems, consider soaking them before cooking.
  • The Red meat : 8mg/100g
    It contains all the amino acids essential to protein that our body cannot manufacture on its own. This makes it a very interesting food for maintaining and preserving muscle mass. Remember that proteins are essential for making muscle, hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters… In short, they are essential for our proper functioning. Red meat also provides B12 (for our brain and nervous system). On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid red meats resulting from intensive breeding, to eat less of them, but of better quality!
  • The molds : 7mg/100g
    Also a very good source of protein, the mussel also provides iodine, zinc, phosphorus and selenium. It is also interesting for its omega-3 contributions for the proper functioning of the brain or the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. So treat yourself from July to January and swap the potato fries for sweet potato fries that go just as well with it;
  • The oilseeds : 5mg /100g
    Almond, walnut, sesame, hazelnut… All rich in fibre, but also in vegetable proteins, potassium, zinc, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus, they are ideal for a healthy snack.

Our expert

Naturopath based in Paris and Lyon, Sabine Monnoyeur offers personalized advice in practice or teleconsultation.
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