Iron is a particularly important trace element since it contributes to the transport and storage of oxygen in cells, the production of energy, the production of collagen and the strengthening of the immune system.
Needs are increased during growth, or in cases of pregnancy, breastfeeding or heavy periods in women, who are therefore more prone to deficiencies. Iron deficiency (also called anemia) can manifest as chronic fatigue, pale complexion, or reduced physical and intellectual productivity. Here is everything you need to know about the benefits and the best dietary sources of iron , but also about the secrets to maximizing its absorption:
The benefits of iron
Lack of iron leads to a decrease in the production of red blood cells, hemoglobin and myoglobin, responsible for transporting oxygen to all cells in the body and storing them in the muscles for future needs. For this reason, iron is considered an essential mineral:
It boosts energy levels
Iron contributes to the metabolic processes that the body carries out to digest proteins, absorb nutrients from food and produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the human body's primary source of energy. This is why iron deficiency results in exhaustion, fatigue and many other symptoms of lethargy.
It contributes to good cognitive functioning
Iron is involved in transporting oxygen to the brain. Therefore, iron deficiency can impair memory, concentration and other cognitive functions. In infants and children, a deficiency can cause psychomotor and cognitive abnormalities that may also lead to learning difficulties.
It supports the immune system
Iron is an essential mineral for the proliferation and maturation of immune cells (leukocytes). As a result, its deficiency leads to a decrease in the number of leukocytes, as well as a reduction in their ability to neutralize pathogens. It also has antioxidant properties which fight against cellular aging and protect the body against certain degenerative diseases.
It helps maintain a positive mood
There is also an association between iron deficiency and anxiety, depression or other mental health problems. Because iron affects the functioning of the nervous system as well as the development of neurons and neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood, emotions and psychological behaviors.
It promotes the smooth progress of the pregnancy
Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth and low birth weight, and possible health problems during the first years of life, including stunted growth and cognitive development.
How to maximize your intake through food?
It's best to get iron from your diet by regularly consuming iron-rich foods. Ideally, you should only take an iron supplement if you have a proven deficiency, and you should do so under the supervision of a healthcare professional who will adjust the dose to the iron level that appears on your blood tests.
Iron from your diet is safe and associated with minimal risk of unwanted side effects. Conversely, iron supplementation can be toxic when taken in too large a quantity compared to our needs, and cause side effects such as stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, constipation or even heartburn. It then promotes oxidative stress and loses its antioxidant and protective powers. Here are some tips for choosing your dietary sources of iron and maximizing their absorption:
Favor sources of iron of animal origin (or heme iron)
Heme iron is the form of iron best assimilated by the body and can only be obtained from foods of animal origin and in particular:
- Red meat
- Black pudding
- Fish and sardines in particular
The absorption rate of heme iron is approximately 25%, compared to 3 to 8% for the non-heme form. Vegetarians and vegans should therefore monitor their iron levels and supplement if necessary. Be careful, however, not to supplement without the advice of a doctor, because excess iron can lead to the production of free radicals which are likely to cause cellular damage and therefore be harmful to the body.
Optimize the absorption of plant-based iron
The best sources of iron for vegetarians and vegans are:
- The cereals
- Green leafy vegetables like kale or spinach
- Oleaginous fruits such as almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts
- Dried fruits like raisins and apricots
- Algae and in particular spirulina
Although less well absorbed by the body, non-heme iron, present in these foods of plant origin, should not be neglected. It is possible to maximize its absorption with a few little tips. Here they are:
Eat foods rich in vitamin C
Vitamin C improves the absorption of non-heme iron. It captures it and stores it in a form that is more easily absorbed by your body. Foods rich in vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits
- Cruciferous vegetables (from the cabbage family)
So remember to always drink citrus juice or consume fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C at the same time as foods rich in iron of plant origin!
Anti-nutrients (lectins and phytic acid in particular) are compounds naturally present in foods rich in fiber such as legumes, cereals and oilseed fruits, which in the digestive tract bind to certain minerals, including iron, and prevent us from absorb them. The preparation processes for legumes and cereals traditionally used by our grandmothers contribute to the degradation of these “anti-nutrients”, in particular:
- Soaking: immerse whole grains, legumes or nuts in water for a few hours (the best is to do it the night before and let them soak overnight, but if you only have two hours to spare , that's already good), before rinsing them carefully and cooking them or eating them directly.
- Germination (mainly done for seeds): once soaked and rinsed, you can leave them in the open air in a container for a few hours. A small germ appears very quickly. The seeds are then ready to be used, to their full nutritional potential! Eat them quickly and store them in the refrigerator.
- Fermentation (of cereals and legumes): it consists of adding fermentation bacteria or yeasts which can transform the starches of cereals and legumes into foods rich in probiotics and enzymes and free of anti-nutrients . There are many traditional and delicious fermented recipes including: sourdough bread, tempeh, lacto-fermented tofu, miso and even tamari!
Limit foods that inhibit iron absorption
Certain food compounds can inhibit iron absorption, in particular:
- Tannins present in tea, coffee and even red wine, which reduce the rate of iron absorption by 40% to 60%.
- Calcium contained in dairy products
- Phosphates contained in soft drinks and sodas.
- Oxalates present in spinach, beets, chocolate, etc.
They modify the absorption of non-heme iron, although they are significantly reduced after cooking.
- The alcohol
- Stomach acid inhibiting drugs
So be sure to always consume them away from foods rich in iron.