Why do we need iron?
Iron is a key component of haemoglobin, the molecule that delivers oxygen around our body and provides the energy we need to function. It is so important that our body has ways of storing iron so it doesn’t suddenly run out. Nevertheless, a shortage of iron is the most common mineral deficiency, affecting nearly a third of adult Australians, especially women. By reducing our energy levels, low iron levels impact on all aspects of performance and quality of life, from exercise and thinking, to sleep. A deficiency of iron will have a major impact on our capacity for healthy aging.
How much iron should we take for healthy aging?
It is recommended that men take more than 8 mg of iron per day, and menstruating women take more than twice this amount (18mg). However, partly due to our intake of empty calories, at least a third of adults do not consume anywhere near enough. Yet iron is found in many foods. It is highest in liver, red meat, fish and poultry, as well as legumes and green leafy vegetables such as spinach (hence the energy of Popeye).
How can we get enough iron in our diet for healthy aging?
Absorption of iron from our diet is inefficient, especially from plant sources, and less than a quarter is absorbed. This means that vegetarians need almost twice as much dietary iron per day than meat-eaters. Combining foods rich in Vitamin C with foods rich in iron can boost iron absorption e.g. squeezing some lemon juice over beans or salad. A number of foods, especially cereals, are also fortified with iron.
Iron supplements are widely taken by women, often as part of a women’s multivitamin. Supplemental iron is generally available as ferrous and ferric salts, with ferrous being the best absorbed (especially ferrous fumarate). Commencing iron supplementation can sometimes cause gastrointestinal upset, which may be off-putting. This can be minimized by taking iron chelates, dividing the dose, taking it with food or starting with a small dose and gradually building up. This requirement for individual flexibility is the major limitation of most generic multivitamin products.