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Iron Requirements

The total amount of body iron in adults is 2 to 4 g. Its major function is to transport oxygen (hemoglobin), but it is also critically important for the cognitive development of young children. Every day humans must absorb around 1 to 3 mg of this element from their diets, which contain around 10 to 20 mg of iron. When this daily requirement cannot be met over an extended time period, iron deficiency anemia can develop.

The source of iron in food that is best absorbed by the human body is heme-iron, which is present in red meat. With non-heme iron, as present in grains and vegetables, the level of absorption is much lower. In cases of low meat consumption (e.g. vegetarianism or diets of people in developing countries), this implies a risk of iron deficiency anemia.

Additionally, unlike in the industrialized world, diets in developing countries are invariably rich in a phosphorous compound called phytate. This compound strongly binds to all non-heme-iron in food, rendering it unavailable for absorption. These dietary conditions are thought to be the major causes of iron deficiency anemia, particularly in developing countries.