When advertisements urge you to trim calories, reduce sugar or lower fat, it may seem like healthy eaters restrict the types of foods they eat. A healthy diet actually includes a wide variety of foods that provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function. Iron and zinc are two essential minerals that perform vital functions in your body, and a lack of these nutrients in your diet can lead to health complications.
Your body uses iron to form hemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen through your bloodstream. The Institute of Medicine recommends that women of child-bearing age consume 18 milligrams of iron a day, more than double the recommendation for men due to blood loss from the menstrual cycle. Animal proteins contain a form of iron that absorbs easier than the iron found in plants and fortified grains. The Institute of Medicine based the daily iron recommendations on a diet that includes animal protein. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need to consume more iron to meet your needs. Eating foods rich in vitamin C with your meal can increase your absorption of plant sources of iron.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the United States. Iron deficiency causes anemia, a condition characterized by low levels of healthy red blood cells, or hemoglobin, in the blood. Symptoms of anemia include extreme tiredness, confusion and changes in body temperature. Since women of child-bearing age have higher iron needs than men, they also have a greater risk of developing iron deficiency, especially women who experience heavy menstrual cycles or follow a restrictive diet. If you have concerns about iron, talk to your doctor before taking supplements. Iron overload occurs when your body absorbs too much iron, which can cause damage to your organs. If you need supplementation, your doctor will recommend an appropriate dose for your needs.
The next time you receive a compliment on your skin, you can partly thank the zinc in your diet. A nutrient superstar, zinc keeps your skin healthy, promotes wound healing and aids the function of over 300 different enzymes in your body. Cold medications often contain zinc, because zinc boosts immunity and helps your body fight infection. The Institute of Medicine recommends women consume 8 milligrams of zinc a day and pregnant women should increase their consumption to 11 milligrams daily. A wide variety of foods contain zinc, including meat, seafood, beans, fortified cereals and dairy products.
According to the National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, most Americans consume enough zinc in their diets, so zinc deficiency is rare in this country. Adults who follow a strict vegan diet or have a history of gastrointestinal surgery, including weight loss surgery, have a higher risk for zinc deficiency. Excessive use of high-dose zinc supplements can cause complications, including decreasing immunity and reducing levels of HDL, the good cholesterol that reduces your risk for heart disease. To avoid these complications, the National Institute of Health recommends adults not exceed 40 milligrams of zinc a day. If you have concerns about zinc in your diet, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
- Centers for Disease Control: Nutrition for Everyone: Iron and Iron Deficiency
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Elements
- National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin C
- National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- Mayo Clinic: Anemia
- Mayo Clinic: Zinc
- National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Zinc
Jennifer Dlugos is a Boston-based writer with more than 10 years of experience in the health-care and wellness industries. She is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter who teaches screenwriting and film production classes throughout New England. Dlugos holds a master's degree in dietetics.