BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha


It seems strange that the human body needs metals. Not large quantities of it but rather, tiny amounts of metallic elements such as iron, copper, zinc, iodine, fluorine, chromium, selenium, manganese and molybdenum, which are vital for maintaining good health.

Although required in very small amounts, these trace elements – or micro minerals – are essential for the human body to manufacture the enzymes, hormones and cells that it needs to keep functioning efficiently.

The total amount of iron in the human body is about four grammes – no more than what’s contained in a nail. And most of this iron (60-70% of it) is in the form of haemoglobin.

Every red blood cell has haemoglobin in it; and its function is to absorb the oxygen in the lungs, carry it throughout the body along the circulatory system and deliver it to all the cells.

Since less than one percent of this iron is found in the bloodstream, the rest of it is stored – mainly in the form of ferritin – in the liver and bone marrow.

Because this metallic element is vital for the body to function, we need to take it regularly in our diet to maintain our iron stock.

However, only about 10 percent of the iron we eat is absorbed by the intestines. The other 90 percent is simply passed out – unabsorbed – in the stools. So ensuring a regular supply of iron in digestible form is essential if we don’t want to become iron deficient and anaemic.

Iron is found in several natural foods. For those who eat meat – all forms of red meat, particularly organ meats such as liver and kidney are a good source of iron. Meats such as beef, pork and lamb are also high in iron. A simple obser­vation is that the redder the meat, the more iron it contains.

Vegetarians need not despair. Dark-green leaves such as spinach and silver beet, as well as legumes such as soybeans and chickpeas, are good sources of iron. Nuts such as cadju and almonds, and even dark chocolate, can provide dietary iron.

While all these foods contain iron, there are ideal ways to help your body absorb and better utilise the elements of that metal found in your diet. When consuming spinach, steaming or cooking it rather than eating it raw enhances iron absorption.

Eating food that contains iron along with tea inhibits its absorption because the tannin in the latter combines with the former in the ingested food and makes it difficult for absorption.

On the other hand, consuming this food along with orange or lemon juice is good because the ascorbic acid in citrus fruits helps form soluble compounds, which the intestines can easily absorb. Even taking a vitamin C tablet with your green leaves is helpful!

When the body becomes deficient in this metal, symptoms of iron deficiency that manifest include fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath and lightheadedness.

In the case of children, iron deficiency is evident when they fail to grow and thrive. A lack of iron can also hamper the immune system and make you more prone to infections, as well as delay the healing of wounds.

So in order to keep your body in optimal condition, make sure you maintain a healthy intake of foods containing natural iron.