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Digging for Iron

Iron is an interesting metal. It pole vaulted society into the modern age as we learned to manipulate it into weapons and tools. It is everywhere: in our buildings, in our automobiles, and in our machines. We use the electromagnetic properties of iron in transformers, computers, and medical devices.

Iron has some flaws though. It rusts. Iron loves oxygen and, in the presence of moisture, it pulls the element to itself, creating a soft and brittle oxide that breaks down and crumbles into red-orange dust. We often forget that without this amazing metal and its propensity to rust, humans could not exist.

Singular cells floating in the ocean have very little problem absorbing oxygen across their cellular membrane using osmosis, but if you were to pack billions of cells into one area, the balance of oxygen would be disrupted and those cells would suffocate, starve, and die. Yet this is exactly what a human is, billions of cells crammed tightly into one package. As they stick together in tissue, the surface area of those cellular membranes gets smaller and can’t keep up with the absorption of life giving oxygen.

Lungs help by pulling oxygen into the interior of our bodies, but that still isn’t enough for us to survive alone. Many cells are still too far away to benefit. This is where iron comes in. Iron combines with proteins to form hemoglobin in red blood cells. In this form iron is essential in carrying oxygen from the lungs to those starving cells farther away, locked in tissue and muscle without access to the lungs.

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia. Anemia leaves people feeling tired, lethargic, short of breath, and dizzy. It can also cause heart palpitations and an inability to focus. If left untreated, it can result in difficulty breathing. The usual causes of anemia are parasites, blood loss, and not eating enough iron-rich food sources. There are also iron inhibitors that keep the body from absorbing iron from food.

A vegetarian or vegan diet, despite what many say, can supply plenty of iron. It’s true that iron from plants is not as easily absorbed as animal iron, but that doesn’t mean iron-rich vegetables and fruits aren’t abundantly available with all the iron a body needs.

Peas, lentils, beans, potatoes, broccoli, and asparagus top the iron list for vegetables. Greens are also high in iron, like mint, parsley, lemon grass, collard greens, bok choy, turnip greens, and cooked spinach. Dates, raisins, and watermelon are fruits high in iron. Turmeric, a spice common in Middle Eastern cuisine, adds iron and many other beneficial vitamins to food.

Some foods contain compounds that inhibit absorption of iron. Avoid coffee, tea, grape juice, soft drinks, and wine at mealtime. These beverages are full of acids, caffeine, and phosphates that keep the body from absorbing iron from other foods. Beans should be soaked before cooking to reduce these compounds. Spinach should be cooked to break down these inhibitors.

Combining iron-rich foods with fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron. Tomatoes, red peppers, cantaloupe, and citrus fruits, when paired with iron-rich sources, dramatically increase the body’s ability to absorb the valuable metal. Broccoli contains both iron and vitamin C and is a great source for both.

Those seeking healthier plant-based options don’t need to reach for a supplement to get the iron they need. Just paying minor attention to the foods they eat easily provides ample amounts of iron for any diet or lifestyle.

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