Dietary iron and its importance in women’s health

Medically Reviewed by Checkmark Medically Reviewed By: Garima Dev Verman
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Iron is the most essential nutrient for transporting oxygen throughout the body, but it is deficient in a significant portion of the world’s population. Many countries are working hard to address this problem. Iron naturally exists in numerous foods and is also available as a dietary supplement.

The human body contains two forms of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, and fish, and it is easily absorbed, leading to a quicker boost in iron levels. Non-heme iron is present in plant-based foods such as vegetables and fruits and is not absorbed as efficiently as heme iron. Vitamin C aids in the absorption of non-heme iron, so consuming sources of iron and vitamin C together can be beneficial for increasing iron levels in the body.

Some sources of iron are spinach, red meats, chicken, eggs, beetroots, peas, broccoli, lentils, etc.

What are the functions of iron?

  • Essential for blood production: Iron plays an essential role in producing haemoglobin, a protein primarily found in red blood cells, responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin consists mainly of iron and is the key component responsible for oxygen transport to cells.
  • Maintains oxygen in muscles: Iron is involved in the production of myoglobin in muscles. Myoglobin stores oxygen and provides it to muscle cells as needed, contributing to the growth and maintenance of muscles.
  • Supports healthy hair and nails: Iron supports the synthesis of collagen, contributing to shiny hair and protecting nails from becoming brittle.

The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) of iron for adult men is 19 mg per day and for adult women is 29 mg per day. In pregnant women, RDA is 40 mg per day.

What is the deficiency of iron that occurs in 3 stages?

  • Depletion of stored iron: Depletion of stored iron results in reduced levels of iron in the bone marrow.
  • Impaired haemoglobin production: Impaired haemoglobin production occurs when iron stores start depleting, but haemoglobin remains within the normal range.
  • Iron-deficient anaemia (IDA): Iron-deficient anaemia (IDA) occurs when iron stores are used up to very low levels and hemoglobin decreases below the normal range.

The normal haemoglobin range for men is 13.8 g/dL to 17.2 g/dL, and for women, it is 12.1 g/dL to 15.1 g/dL.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?

  • Pale skin
  • Fatigue
  • Cold hands
  • Brittle nails
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness

What are some groups at risk for iron deficiency?

Some groups of people are at a higher risk of anaemia than others. These population groups should be more aware of their iron intake. Such high-risk groups are:

  • Pregnant women require increased iron to meet the needs of the fetus. Inadequate iron during pregnancy can lead to maternal and infant mortality or premature birth.
  • Women with heavy menstrual bleeding: Women with heavy menstrual bleeding are at a higher risk of iron deficiency. Abnormally heavy bleeding in women is described as menorrhagia.
  • Blood donors: Blood donors who donate frequently can deplete their iron stores. This is often observed in individuals who do not fully recover from blood loss before donating again.
  • Surgical patients: Surgical patients may experience extra blood loss during surgery, potentially leading to iron deficiency. Post-surgery diets may restrict iron-containing foods, making it challenging to replenish lost iron stores.
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders Patients with gastrointestinal disorders, such as haemorrhoids, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease, may experience minimal bleeding in the internal lining of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a gradual reduction in iron levels. These disorders can also hinder the absorption of iron from food.

How to overcome deficiency of Iron?

You can cure iron deficiency through a proper diet rich in iron-containing foods. Incorporating vitamin C-rich foods into your diet can also enhance iron absorption. Some foods, such as cereals, are fortified with iron and readily available on the market. Choosing these fortified foods over your regular ingredients can increase your iron intake.

Another method of treating iron deficiency is by using dietary supplements. Iron supplements come in various forms, including multivitamins and mineral supplements that combine iron with other nutrients or supplements containing iron alone in the form of ferrous sulfate in different concentrations.

Some people believe that cooking in iron cookware can transfer iron to food, especially when using acidic mediums like tomato juice. However, this method is not entirely reliable because the amount of iron transferred is not easily measurable. Additionally, the reactivity of the acidic medium can vary depending on the other ingredients in the food. So, while cooking in iron pots and pans can have some benefits, it should not be relied upon as the primary method for meeting daily iron needs.

When should women start on supplements?

Iron deficiency, or anaemia, is a widespread issue among young women worldwide, particularly those in their reproductive years. When girls reach puberty, they begin menstruating, resulting in increased blood loss and higher daily iron requirements. When dietary intake falls short of meeting these needs, oral iron supplements should be considered after assessing their haemoglobin levels.

Pregnant women are at an elevated risk of anaemia due to the increased demand for iron to support proper fetal development and prevent premature births. Babies born to anaemic mothers are also more likely to develop anaemia at a young age. Therefore, it is advisable to incorporate iron supplements into the routine prenatal care of pregnant women after consulting a healthcare provider. It’s recommended to start with small doses of iron supplements during the first trimester and gradually increase the dosage throughout the pregnancy to maintain adequate iron reserves.

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Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

Disclaimer: Medical Science is an ever evolving field. We strive to keep this page updated. In case you notice any discrepancy in the content, please inform us at [email protected]. You can futher read our Correction Policy here. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on or accessed through this website or it's social media channels. Read our Full Disclaimer Here for further information.

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Mansi Singh
Mansi Singh
A masters in Dietetics & Applied Nutrition from Amity University, Mansi is determined to help people be aware and make right choices about the food they eat through her articles.
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