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Iron & Your Health

Brian Bambl B.S. Exercise Science 2011-05-28

Iron is one of 20 minerals which your body needs to function properly.  Iron is important in energy metabolism, brain function, immune function, and the function of hemoglobin and myoglobin.

The most notable function of iron is its involvement in the production of energy.  As mentioned earlier one of iron’s uses involves the function of hemoglobin and myoglobin.  As part of hemoglobin and myglobin iron provides a site at which oxygen can attach and be carried through your blood and in your muscles to your body’s cells to help in the production of energy.  It is also important in other areas of energy production, as it is part of cytochromes which are used the electron transport chain and it is a component of the enzyme aconitase which is an important enzyme in the Krebs cycle (citric acid cycle).

Due to iron’s major role in the production of energy, low iron levels can lead to fatigue and an inability to concentrate.  These symptoms can often be seen in individuals whose low iron levels have led to iron deficiency anemia.  Iron deficiency anemia occurs when iron levels become so low that it affects your red blood cells ability to carry oxygen.  This happens because without the iron your body cannot produce the necessary hemoglobin and myoglobin your red blood cells need to carry the oxygen. 

What causes low iron levels?

Low iron levels can be caused by low iron intake, donating blood, and for females’ blood lost through menses.  Women are at greatest risk for iron deficiency because of their monthly menstrual cycle and because they tend not to eat as much red meat as men. 

What are good sources of iron?

Iron can be found in plant and animal foods.  However, the best source of iron is found in animal meat which contains hem iron versus elemental iron that is found in plants.  Heme iron has a greater bioavailability than elemental iron and is therefore better absorbed by your body.  Phytic acid and oxalates (i.e. oxalic acid) found in plants such as spinach decrease the bioavailability of iron in plants. 

What are the recommended daily intake for iron / the RDA for iron?

The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for adults is 8 mg for men and 18 mg for women.  This translates to the Daily value that is found on the food label being 18 mg.  This means that a food label which claims its food has 50% of the daily value for iron has 9 mg of iron.

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