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Iron: Essential Element for Energy and Red Blood Cells

Iron is an essential trace element, meaning a healthy diet must include this nutrient. Dietary sources of iron are abundant, although vegetarian sources of this iron are more difficult to absorb.

Iron occurs naturally in plant and animal life. An extremely important mineral for general well-being and energy, iron is the essential element within the hemoglobin molecule, which carries the oxygen in every red blood cell. It also functions in myoglobin, a molecule that supplies oxygen to muscles.

Iron can be found in high amounts in liver and red meats. Vegetable sources include leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. Iron is especially abundant in pumpkin and sunflower seeds, raisins and prunes, and wheat germ and bran.

To enhance iron absorption from your foods, add lemon juice or vinegar or take vitamin C. Avoid tea and carbonated water. Also, remember that vegetable-based iron foods, such as spinach and whole grains (which are high in a chemical called phytate), have a lower absorption rate than beef, for example, which has the iron bound into the protein tissues. A low-protein diet will also reduce utilization of iron.

The average child or woman needs 15–20 mg of iron per day, and men need only about 10 mg or less. Pregnant and nursing women need about 50–60 mg per day. Obtaining as much iron from your diet as possible is the best course. A small amount of iron (5–10 mg per day) is generally safe to take in supplement form, depending on your diet and individual needs. You may also need to take more iron if you experience heavy blood loss — to help your body rebuild red blood cells.

Although iron is extremely important for growing children and all women in menstruating years, it can be toxic in men as well as in women who don’t have regular menstrual periods. Some scientists think that too much iron increases the risk of heart disease and some infections. Supplementation and dietary iron should be determined based on individual body needs.

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