What is the Importance of Dietary Iron?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Dietary iron is necessary for a number of functions in the body. If people do not get enough iron they can become sick, and in extreme cases of iron deficiency people can die. Iron deficiency is a very common nutritional deficiency that can be easily managed by increasing iron intake with dietary changes and supplements. It is important to avoid consuming too much iron, as this trace element can become dangerous in high concentrations. A doctor can provide a patient with advice on daily iron recommendations, but generally adult males should take around 8 milligrams while adult women should take 18 milligrams, unless they are pregnant, in which case the recommended intake is 27 milligrams.

Iron performs a number of important functions in the human body.
Iron performs a number of important functions in the human body.

One of the most important roles of dietary iron is as a component in hemoglobin and myoglobin, both used as oxygen transporters. The iron makes these transporters much more efficient, ensuring that the cells get enough oxygen. People with iron deficiencies can develop anemia and will feel weak, fatigues, and tired. In addition, iron is a key component in many proteins and enzymes that regulate a variety of reactions in the body.

Blood transfusions can be used remedy an iron imbalance in the blood.
Blood transfusions can be used remedy an iron imbalance in the blood.

Lack of iron can inhibit cell growth and interfere with cell differentiation, the process that allows cells to develop into different types. The ability to differentiate is critical, as different cells fulfill different functions in the body and they constantly need to be renewed. Prolonged iron deficiencies will make people ill as the interconnected systems in their bodies that rely on dietary iron start to fail.

There are two different types of dietary iron. Heme iron, a more absorbable form, is found in meats, especially dark meats like liver. Non-heme iron can be obtained through eating leafy greens and legumes like lentils and peanuts. The body cannot absorb this form as readily. One method for making non-heme iron more accessible is to eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C. People can also take iron supplements if their diets are not meeting their needs.

People with iron deficiencies tend to have obvious symptoms. In addition to making people fatigued, anemia also tends to make people very pale. These physical signs can be confirmed with a blood test that will document anemia. Depending on the severity of the anemia, treatments can include supplementation, blood transfusions, and iron supplements to get the patient's iron levels back up. Once the patient is stabilized, recommendations may be made to help the patient avoid a deficiency in the future by consuming more dietary iron.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Dietary iron is important for everyone, but it's even more important for vegetarians and for women because they are at increased risk of deficiency.

I think all vegetarians and all menstruating women and pregnant women should take an iron supplement.


@feruze-- Of course, an iron deficiency will impact memory and concentration. Any nutrient that's essential for cell function and interaction will do that and iron is one of them. Iron basically allows our cells and organs to breathe. Without enough iron, the number of red blood cells go down, which is called anemia. It's inevitable for someone with an untreated iron deficiency and anemia to be sick.

This is why your roommate experiences fainting and issues with concentration and memory. She needs to take her supplements as prescribed to avoid these symptoms.


I think lack of iron also affects concentration and memory.

My roommate has an iron deficiency and anemia. She has to take iron supplements every day but she's not very good at remembering to take them. Last week, she forgot to take them for a few days and she fainted.

She also has trouble with exams. She studies a lot but it's hard for her to remember the material. I think her iron deficiency is causing this.

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