Why do we need iron?

By Amanda Tesser

Imagine a plate in front of you: brown rice, beans, arugula salad with chickpeas and stewed kale. To drink, you have a glass of orange juice. It’s a simple meal, but rich in iron. Balancing your meals is essential to avoid iron deficiency.

But what is iron exactly? It’s a micronutrient — nutrient that the organism needs in small amounts compared to carbs and proteins, but it’s still as important as they are. It’s main function is to transport oxygen to other parts of the body.

When you don’t have enough iron, you can be diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia — the result of reduced amounts of hemoglobin in the circulation. Hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein that’s responsible for the red colour of the blood.

If you develop anemia, you’ll have less oxygen reaching your tissues. This condition can cause symptoms such as headache, tiredness, irritability, dizziness, short breath and palpitations.

There are two types of iron:

Haem — it’s more easily absorbed by the organism due to physiological reasons. You can find it in animal-based products, e.g., all types of meat (including fish and chicken), especially viscera.

Non-haem — it needs to adapt to the intestinal pH and bond with other nutrients to be metabolized. You can find it in plant-based products and beans of all kinds, including fava bean, pea, lentil and chickpea.

Metabolism is a highly-directed process by which the organism consumes and releases energy. It’s the result of all transformations in cells or living organisms. It’s also vital to regulate essential activities to life such as breathing.

Women should take 18 mg of iron daily; men, 8 mg. Women need more iron than men at their fertile age because they lose part of the mineral during their periods.

After the menopause, women will need the same amount as men do. The maximum intake for both, considering side effects, is 45 mg per day.

Besides gastrointestinal disorders, a surplus of iron can cause severe heart disease and increase in the size of the liver. Respect those limits (also in case of supplementation) because our bodies don’t have a physiological mechanism to remove the excess of iron.

All these recommendations were defined by the Food and Nutrition Board in the 1940s and are regularly updated. Their goal is to focus on good nutrition.

Vegans and vegetarians, who don’t eat meat, should add all types of beans, soy, peas and chickpeas to their diets.

Nutritionally speaking, they’re great substitutes to meat. To avoid iron deficiency, consume at least 7 tablespoons per day — equivalent to 2 portions.

The measurement varies according to the type of food. To give you an idea, 1 cup of milk is equal to 1 portion. If we talk about rice, then, 1 portion is equal to 3 tablespoons. If we refer to the group of beans, 2 portions are equivalent to 3 ½ tablespoons or 2 medium scoops.

Foods like nuts and seeds, dark-green veggies (especially kale) and dried fruits are also rich sources of iron. If you like whole-grain cereal, go ahead. They help complement the iron intake.

A final piece of advice: foods prepared with white flour or refined sugar have no iron. Avoid them. Choose whole-grain and non-refined versions. Stay healthy. And you? What do you eat to ensure you’re taking enough iron?

Photo credit: Dasz Zsimmermann via Free Images

Note from the blogger: my posts are generic. If you have any disorder, talk to your practitioner about the best diet for you.


10 thoughts on “Why do we need iron?

    1. I’m so happy that this post was helpful to you. Amanda, our contributor, will be writing more posts on the series “Why do we need…? so stay tuned.
      If you were diagnosed with anemia, your iron levels are too low for some reason. Chat with your doc and make sure you know the reason.
      As for your diet, make sure you’re getting all the vitamins and nutrients you need to be healthy.
      Are you vegan?


      1. Yes I’m a vegan, apparently I have trouble absorbing iron. An interesting fact I have learned in the past few days is caffeine can really affect how the body absorbs iron. I will look out for your next post!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m vegan too. What Amanda told me when I went vegan is that we can better absorb iron if we drink orange juice during our meals. You could try it to see if your absorption improves! 😀

        PS – I’ll poke her to leave you a comment here!


      3. No problem. Glad to help inform you.
        But remember to be clear with your doc about your concerns and, maybe, see if you can have an expert helping you plan your diet to improve your exams 🙂


    2. It is also important to note that if the meal is rich in iron, you should not include anything containing calcium. If you do that, this micronutrient will affect how the body absorbs iron 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!


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