Iron deficiency

Sci Am. 1991 Oct;265(4):46-52. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican1091-46.


PIP: The world's leading nutritional problem is iron deficiency. 66% of children and women aged 15-44 years in developing countries have it. Further, 10-20% of women of childbearing age in developed countries are anemic. Iron deficiency is identified with often irreversible impairment of a child's learning ability. It is also associated with low capacity for adults to work which reduces productivity. In addition, it impairs the immune system which reduces the body's ability to fight infection. Iron deficiency also lowers the metabolic rate and the body temperature when exposed to cold. Hemoglobin contains nearly 73% of the body's iron. This iron is always being recycled as more red blood cells are made. The rest of the needed iron does important tasks for the body, such as binds to molecules that are reservoirs of oxygen for muscle cells. This iron comes from our diet, especially meat. Even though some plants, such as spinach, are high in iron, the body can only absorb 1.4-7% of the iron in plants whereas it can absorb 20% of the iron in red meat. In many developing countries, the common vegetarian diets contribute to high rates of iron deficiency. Parasitic diseases and abnormal uterine bleeding also promote iron deficiency. Iron therapy in anemic children can often, but not always, improve behavior and cognitive performance. Iron deficiency during pregnancy often contributes to maternal and perinatal mortality. Yet treatment, if given to a child in time, can lead to normal growth and hinder infections. However, excess iron can be damaging. Too much supplemental iron in a malnourished child promotes fatal infections since the excess iron is available for the pathogens use. Many countries do not have an effective system for diagnosing, treating, and preventing iron deficiency. Therefore a concerted international effort is needed to eliminate iron deficiency in the world.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anemia, Hypochromic / complications
  • Anemia, Hypochromic / epidemiology*
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Developing Countries
  • Diet
  • Diet, Vegetarian / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Ferritins / metabolism
  • Hemoglobins / metabolism
  • Hookworm Infections / complications
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Iron / adverse effects
  • Iron / deficiency*
  • Iron / physiology
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / physiology
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Physical Exertion / physiology
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Transferrin / metabolism


  • Hemoglobins
  • Transferrin
  • Ferritins
  • Iron