What types of iron are in the food and how can we absorb it better

What types of iron are in the food and how can we absorb it better


Iron is essential for the growth and development of our body, but not everyone needs the same amount of this mineral.

The daily recommendation varies a lot according to age and sex, and depends on whether a vegetarian diet is followed or not.

Iron deficiency is a very common cause of disease in the world: when people do not have enough they can have very pale skin, easily become fatigued and suffer from headaches or iron deficiency anemia. 

But foods contain different types of iron and the body does not absorb that mineral as easily from both sources. How can we make sure we get enough?

How much do we need and for what?

Most of the iron in our body is present in red blood cells, especially as a component of the protein hemoglobin. Its main function in this case is to transport oxygen in the blood to distribute it from the lungs to the different tissues of the body.

The rest of the iron is found mostly in myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to the muscles, and ferritin, which is iron stored mostly in the liver, spleen and bone marrow.

In general, our body tends to maximize the iron content: unlike other minerals, it does not need to be excreted, and only very small amounts are lost through urine and sweat.

In addition, it is the physiological need for iron in our body that regulates, to some extent, its absorption. That means that people who are iron deficient tend to absorb it from food more efficiently and in greater quantities than healthy people.

Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES Image caption A pregnant woman needs about 27 mg of iron per day.

The absorption of iron is almost always greater:

  • during growth , as it increases body size and blood volume,
  • during pregnancy , to meet the additional needs of the baby and
  • after a hemorrhage , including menstruation.

As a reference, according to data from the National Institutes of Health of the United States (NIH, for its acronym in English),

  • A healthy man over the age of 19 needs about 8 mg of iron per day
  • a child of 4 to 8 years needs about 10 mg
  • a woman between 19 and 50 should take about 18mg and
  • a pregnant woman needs about 27mg

According to information from the FAO, the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture, the dietary needs of iron are almost ten times greater than the physiological needs of our body: in other words, to absorb 1 mg of iron per day, we would have to consume in the diet about 10 mg, to have a good margin of safety.

Two types according to their origin

There are two types of iron, according to their animal or vegetable origin.

The one of animal origin is called heme or heme iron (referring to blood) and is very easy to absorb by the human body.

All meats have it, especially red meat, and it is found in large quantities stored in the liver and in the viscera.

Red meat
Copyright of the image KARANDAEV / GETTY IMAGESImage caption Heme iron is in veal, pork, lamb and its derivatives (ham, pâtés, blood sausage), poultry (chicken, turkey), eggs, fish and seafood (cod, sardines, prawns, anchovies, etc.) .

On the other hand, non-heme iron , of vegetable origin, is much more difficult to abs or rber for our body.

Some of the plant foods that contain more iron are spinach, beans or beans, peas, lentils, cabbage and apricots (also called apricots or apricots).

Since heme iron absorption is no more difficult, vegetarians need consume almost twice the recommended amounts of iron per day for each age, according to information from NIH.

How can we absorb it better

Certain foods can enhance or decrease the absorption of iron of vegetable origin.

Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) favors this absorption, while alkaline substances, phosphates, lignin, oxalates, phytates or tannins such as coffee or tea reduce it.

So if you want to get the most nutritious out of a good bowl of lentils, better accompany them with an orange juice and not with a tea.

The same if you take iron supplements.

Iron rich foods
Copyright of the image CHARLIEAJA / GETTY IMAGESImage caption Foods of animal and vegetable origin rich in iron.

Foods with higher iron content

  • Red meats
  • Birds
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Quinoa
  • Legumes (lentils, beans, peas)
  • Green leafy vegetables (spinach, cabbage)
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