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What Is Iron?

Updated: Aug 16

By Food Insight

What is Iron


Iron is an essential mineral for transporting oxygen in our bodies and is also vital for growth and development, hormone synthesis, and muscle metabolism.

Meat, seafood, poultry, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, white beans, and lentils are some examples of food sources of iron.

When the levels of iron stored in the body become low, iron-deficiency anemia can occur, resulting in blood carrying less oxygen from our lungs to organs and tissues throughout the body.

Certain groups of people, such as pregnant women and premature or low-birth weight infants, tend to have a higher risk for iron-deficiency anemia.

The Basics

Iron is a mineral that is necessary for our bodies’ growth and development. In particular, our bodies use iron to create certain hormones and to make hemoglobin and myoglobin.

Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from our lungs to the body’s tissues, and myoglobin is a protein that provides oxygen to our muscles.

Iron is naturally found in a variety of foods, such as lean meat, seafood, lentils, and spinach. Iron can also be added to food products through the process of fortification and additionally is available as a dietary supplement.

The iron in our food has two main forms; heme iron and nonheme iron. Plant-based and iron-fortified foods only contain nonheme iron, whereas animal-derived foods like meat, seafood, and poultry contain both heme and nonheme iron.

Iron and Health

Inadequate intake of iron does not cause obvious symptoms in the short-term because our bodies use stored iron from our muscles, liver, spleen, and bone marrow.

However, when the levels of iron stored in the body become low, this can progress to iron-deficiency anemia (IDA).

IDA is characterized by low hemoglobin concentrations, a decreased proportion of red blood cells in blood by volume, and a lower average red blood cell size.

Symptoms of IDA include gastrointestinal upset, weakness, and problems with concentration and memory, and people with IDA are less able to fight off infections, to work and exercise efficiently, and to control their body temperature well.

The remainder of this section will specifically focus on the role of iron and IDA in pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, as well as people with anemia of chronic disease.

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