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Iron Deficiency: The Causes And The Solutions

Iron has many important key functions in our organism – it is responsible for both oxygen transport and energy metabolism. Iron ensures that we stay fit and healthy. Iron deficiency, on the other hand, makes us tired, listless, and lacks energy and even causes developmental disorders in children. Find out here how you can increase your iron intake through food and thus prevent iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency impairs performance

In the human body, iron is mainly found in the red blood cells, as a central component of the red blood pigment hemoglobin. There it has the task of binding oxygen to itself and supplying all body cells with oxygen via the blood.

Since oxygen cannot get into the cells without iron, the essential trace element iron takes on a vital function. In this context, essential means that the body cannot produce the iron itself, but can only obtain it from food. It is therefore dependent on a sufficient supply of iron-rich foods.

If there is a lack of iron or hemoglobin – which is also known as anemia or anemia – there is automatically a lack of oxygen in the body. For this reason, both physical and mental performance are often severely impaired in this situation. Typical symptoms of iron deficiency or anemia are therefore persistent tiredness and rapid exhaustion – especially with physical exertion.

Iron supports cell functions

However, iron is not only required for the transport of oxygen in the blood, but it also has other important key functions in the cell. Iron is also a component of various enzymes that are responsible for energy metabolism in the body, for example.

All bodily processes are dependent on an optimal supply of energy to the cells and therefore a sufficient supply of iron is also of great importance in this area.

Iron deficiency is a typical deficiency symptom

Although it is well known what an important role iron plays in the body, iron deficiency is one of the most common deficiency symptoms worldwide today. In most cases, iron deficiency is “only” due to an unhealthy diet and could certainly be remedied by changing your diet. However, this presupposes that the cause is also identified.

The symptoms of iron deficiency

The symptoms that occur with iron deficiency are due to the functions of iron in the body described above. The emergence of these symptoms is quite comparable to those of an engine: If an important component of the energy supply of the engine is missing, it can no longer produce enough energy, it no longer warms up properly, its performance decreases and it becomes susceptible to further defects. Iron deficiency causes similar reactions in our bodies:

  • you feel weak and tired
  • physical and mental performance decreases
  • you have trouble maintaining your body temperature
  • the immune system is weakened and one is more susceptible to infections
  • the hair falls out
  • often the tongue is also inflamed and the fingernails bulge upwards
  • the development of children is greatly slowed down, especially on the social level

Iron deficiency in children

Children can also be affected by a lack of iron. Such a deficiency can have serious consequences on the health of babies and small children in particular.

During pregnancy, the need for iron is generally increased. If this fact is not taken into account, an iron deficiency occurs, which of course also affects the fetus: its development in the womb is slowed down, which can later be reflected in the child’s mental ability and size.

Babies who were not sufficiently supplied with all nutrients and trace elements during pregnancy are usually smaller at birth than those who had all these substances available in sufficient quantities.

A sufficient iron supply is also extremely important for small children so that all bodily functions can develop healthily. You should therefore make sure you eat a healthy diet and not resort to industrially produced baby food, because it often contains artificially added iron in addition to other additives.

Too much iron is also not healthy

Artificially added iron is of course not available to the body in its natural form – namely together with all the accompanying substances that are normally found in food. Therefore, this iron cannot be properly utilized by the body, so too much of it accumulates in the body. In the worst case, this can lead to an iron storage disease, which can result in serious damage to health.

Another problem in this context is that unnaturally high iron content in food can lead to the inhibition of zinc absorption since both elements are virtually competitors when it comes to transport into the cells. But babies and toddlers in particular need all trace elements in a natural ratio in order to be able to develop properly.

With a varied and natural and therefore healthy diet, the competitive behavior of both elements will not lead to a zinc or iron deficiency, since both are present in a natural combination and can therefore be optimally utilized by the body.

The same applies to the breast milk of a well-nourished woman because it provides the infant with everything it needs for healthy development.

Causes of iron deficiency

Since our body depends on an adequate supply of iron from food, the most common cause of iron deficiency is in the diet. However, not only the food as such but also the intestinal situation can be responsible for this deficiency.

Because if the intestine is no longer able to absorb iron and other nutrients from food due to deposits, then even a diet rich in iron cannot prevent iron deficiency. In this case, an intestinal cleansing is advisable, because it frees the intestines from waste products and makes the intestinal mucosa receptive.

Insufficient iron intake from food – in combination with the woman’s menstrual period, during which a lot of iron is lost – can exacerbate an existing iron deficiency. Therefore, women suffer from iron deficiency much more often than men.

But not only female menstruation requires an increased iron intake. Unnoticed internal bleeding in the gastrointestinal area or regular blood donations are also factors that increase the normal iron requirement. Therefore, in these cases, special attention should be paid to adequate iron intake.

Legumes for iron deficiency

High protein content in food promotes the absorption of iron, as does vitamin C. It is therefore advisable to eat legumes if you have an iron deficiency. However, these should only be consumed in sprouted form or soaked well (1 to 2 nights) before cooking.

Ungerminated legumes contain plenty of phytic acids, which can inhibit the absorption of iron and many other minerals or reduce their usability. This is why soaking the legumes is so important, as it helps to significantly reduce the phytic acid content.

Amaranth, quinoa, and millet for iron deficiency

In the case of an iron deficiency, it is advisable to integrate the two pseudo-cereals amaranths and quinoa as well as millet into the diet as often as possible. Amaranth provides 9 mg of iron per 100 g, quinoa 8 mg, and millet 7 mg. In comparison, spelled with 4 mg, buckwheat with 3.5 mg, and whole grain rice with 3.2 mg lag behind them in this respect.

Another major advantage of amaranth, quinoa, and millet: they are all gluten-free, contain numerous nutrients and vital substances, and are very easy to digest.

Iron and vitamin C – A valuable combination

Vitamin C is known to significantly increase iron absorption from plant-based iron. This means that as long as vegetable iron is consumed together with foods containing vitamin C, the body can utilize the iron supplied in larger quantities.

Fortunately, vegetarians/vegans usually consume vitamin C at the same time as iron, which is why they are no more likely to suffer from an iron deficiency than meat consumers.

The following vitamin C-rich foods are ideal for combining with iron-rich foods:

  • lemon juice (e.g. in the dressing)
  • Orange juice, ideally freshly squeezed
  • kiwi
  • Paprika red
  • Broccoli, red cabbage, white cabbage – ideally as a delicious raw vegetable
  • Dietary supplements rich in vitamin C: Camu Camu (powder), acerola (powder or juice), rosehip (powder or juice), sea buckthorn (juice)

Bad for iron absorption

On the other hand, there are foods that definitely inhibit iron absorption. These include e.g. B. coffee, black tea, and red wine. Legumes and dairy products that are not soaked for a sufficiently long time also impede iron absorption. In milk, it is particularly the high calcium content that prevents iron absorption, e.g. B. from cereals (example: pouring milk over oatmeal).

In our opinion, however, these factors hardly play a role for people who eat healthily, since they only consume small amounts of the foods mentioned (coffee, black tea, wine, dairy products).

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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