Dr. Vivek Baliga B. is a consultant physician and cardiologist, and director of Baliga Diagnostics in Bengaluru. He is a keen advocate of patient education and loves to blog about all things health related. Learn more about him at drvivekbaliga.com.
Our body needs a complex combination of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats to stay healthy. Amongst the minerals, iron is one of the most important ones. This is because iron ensures that we do not develop anaemia, or low haemoglobin levels. Unfortunately, we don't seem to get sufficient iron in our diet. In this article, will discuss the role of iron for our good health and some of the best, iron-rich food that you should include everyday, if possible.
Iron - Role and types
Iron is a part of haemoglobin. Heme is the iron-rich, red pigment in the blood that carries oxygen to all the vital organs. If you consume a balanced diet with sufficient amount of iron in it, then your haemoglobin levels will usually be normal. Low iron intake can lead to iron deficiency (anaemia), which can make you breathless and tired.
Men require around 10 mg of iron daily, while women need 15 mg daily, as they lose blood and iron during their monthly cycles. Pregnant women need around 30 mg iron daily during pregnancy and 20 mg daily, after they have delivered.
Who is at risk?
Vegetarian diets have been proven time and again to have numerous health benefits. However, those who are strict vegetarians run the risk of being deficient in vitamin B12 and iron.
Vitamin B12 deficiency occurs as a result of poor availability of veggies that are rich in B12. Though plants are rich in iron, vegetarians become iron deficient because the amount of iron absorbed from the digested vegetarian food is minimal. On the other hand, people who consume non-vegetarian food have a low risk of iron deficiency.
Types of dietary iron
The iron we consume in our diet has two forms - 'non-heme' iron and 'heme' iron. Vegetarian foods contain non-heme iron, as do certain fortified foods. On the other hand, non-vegetarian foods have both heme and non-heme iron in them. Heme iron in animal products is obtained from haemoglobin and myoglobin.
Heme iron has a greater bioavailability when compared to non-heme iron. This means that when either of these iron forms are consumed, heme iron is better absorbed by the digestive tract. Around 14-18% of the iron present in non-vegetarian sources is absorbed by the body, as compared to 5-12% of iron in vegetarian sources. Adding vitamin C to the diet enhances the absorption of iron by the gut.
Now, let's take a look at some of the best sources of iron which you can include in your diet.
Iron-rich food - Vegetarian sources
I must admit that was quite surprised by what read in literature regarding some of the sources of iron in our diet. For example, spinach leaves are widely regarded as an excellent iron source and are consumed
in abundance in India. Interestingly, while it contains around 2.9 mg per 100 gram serving, it also contains compounds called polyphenols that reduce its bioavailability.
Most fruits and vegetables are poor sources of iron. I have listed some of the best vegetarian sources of iron in a table. am sure there are plenty of other foods that you are wondering about, whose iron content is not mentioned here. have kept the list brief.
Iron-rich food - Non-vegetarian sources
Most non-vegetarian foods contain heme iron. Fish such as mussels, tuna, prawns and salmon are iron-rich food choices. Meat such as pork liver (24.4 mg/125 gm serving), beef, pork and mutton are also good sources. Chicken, a popular non-vegetarian food, while high in protein is low in iron, with only 1.3 mg/100 gm serving. Two large, boiled eggs have around 1.68 mg of iron.
As you can see, there are a variety of iron-rich foods you can choose from to give your body the recommended daily dose of iron.
Iron is an important mineral needed to keep your blood levels normal. Choose from a variety of sources that I have mentioned and make sure to include them in your daily diet.
This article originally appeared in the TeacherTribe Magazine January 2022 edition.