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Why Do You Need Iron?

Iron is used to make the hemoglobin molecule, which ferries oxygen around our bodies in our red blood cells. Not enough iron means too few red blood cells being made, which can leave us feeling weak, tired and breathless. If iron deficiency is allowed to continue, it can progress to anemia, a medical condition in which the red blood cell count or hemoglobin is less than normal.

Some people have extra iron needs:

  • Toddlers — growing rapidly
  • Teenage girls and women — start to lose iron when there periods start
  • Teenage boys — gaining muscle
  • Pregnant women — iron needed to build a baby
  • Breast feeding women — iron is passed on to the baby in the motherís milk

There are two primary types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal products, and comes directly from hemoglobin, the red blood cells in the animal. Animal sources of iron include red meat, especially liver, eggs, and seafood such as tuna, salmon, and oysters. White meat also carries some iron, but not nearly as much as lean red meat does. Heme iron is absorbed very efficiently by your body.

Non-heme iron is found in plant products, and is not as well absorbed as heme iron. Non-heme sources include many grains such as wheat and oats, along with lentils, beans, soy, leafy greens like spinach, broccoli, and mustard, and dried fruit. Many companies also supplement products like cereals and soy milks to increase the amount of iron that they contain.

Humans should not rely entirely on red meat for their iron, but it should be considered a significant source. When animal sources of iron are eaten with green leafy vegetables, the body is better able to absorb the heme iron in the animal products, so a balanced, healthy plate of food is recommended. Eating or drinking vitamin C-rich foods with iron-containing foods helps iron uptake.

WARNING: Donít be tempted to take iron supplements without medical supervision. Iron can build up in the body to toxic levels, and iron overdoses are dangerous!

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