Pumping Iron Through Your Body

Iron, one of the most abundant metals on Earth, is essential to most life forms and to normal human physiology. Iron is an integral part of many proteins and enzymes that maintain good health. It is an essential component of proteins involved in oxygen transport, and also is essential for the regulation of cell growth. Iron deficiency limits oxygen delivery to cells, resulting in fatigue, poor work performance, and decreased immunity. On the other hand, excess amounts of iron can result in toxicity and even death.

The World Health Organization considers iron deficiency the number one nutritional disorder in the world. As many as 80 percent of the world’s population may be iron deficient, while 30 percent may have iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency develops gradually and usually begins with a negative iron balance, when iron intake does not meet the daily need for dietary iron. Iron deficiency anemia is an advanced stage of iron depletion. It occurs when storage sites of iron are deficient and blood levels of iron cannot meet daily needs.

Absorption of iron from meat proteins is more efficient than from plant foods such as rice, maize, black beans, soybeans and wheat, though both are valuable. Tannins (found in tea), calcium, polyphenols, and phytates (found in legumes and whole grains) can decrease iron absorption, so it’s important to include foods that enhance iron absorption when daily iron intake is less than recommended.

Iron intake is negatively influenced by low-nutrient-density foods, which are high in calories but low in vitamins and minerals. Sugar-sweetened sodas and most desserts are examples of low-nutrient-density foods, as are snack foods such as potato chips. For many Americans, especially adolescents between the ages of  8 and 18, low-nutrient-density foods contribute almost 30 percent of daily caloric intake, with sweeteners and desserts jointly accounting for almost 25 percent of caloric intake. Those adults and adolescents who consume fewer low-nutrient-density foods are more likely to consume recommended amounts of iron.

Signs of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Decreased work and school performance
  • Slow cognitive and social development during childhood
  • Difficulty maintaining body temperature
  • Decreased immune function, which increases susceptibility to infection

Iron deficiency is uncommon among adult men and postmenopausal women. These individuals should only take iron supplements when prescribed by a physician because of their greater risk of iron overload. Iron overload is a condition in which excess iron is found in the blood and in organs such as the liver and heart. Men and women who engage in regular, intense exercise such as jogging, competitive swimming, and cycling and have marginal or inadequate iron status need to pay closer attention to iron retention. Vegetarians also need to remain aware of their iron intake.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!