Pump up the iron

    If you're eating less meat these days, keeping your iron levels up may seem like a challenge. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains how to get the most from your food to boost iron.

    Spinach leaf said with blue cheese in bowl

    We all need iron in our diet for our bodies to make healthy red blood cells, and to sustain our energy levels. If you're a vegetarian or reducing the amount of meat you eat, there are still a lot of options. Surveys suggest that those most at risk of low levels are women of reproductive age, because menstrual periods have a major influence on iron status, and children who have a greater requirement for growth and development.

    Are you getting enough iron?

    If you're low in iron you're likely to be suffering from tiredness, have a pale complexion, feel cold and experience problems concentrating - which can be a particular issue for children of school age. You're also more likely to pick up colds and infections because iron is needed to maintain the immune system. The amount of iron you need depends on your age and whether you are male or female:

    • Women of reproductive age – 14.8mg a day
    • Men over 18 years of age and post-menopausal women – 8.7mg a day

    What should I eat if I'm vegetarian?

    Spinach and chickpea curry in bowl
    Although red meat, poultry and fish provide an easy-to-absorb form of iron called haem, plant sources can make just as valuable a contribution. These include beans, peas and lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale and watercress, whole-grains like brown rice, pasta and wholemeal bread, as well as nuts and seeds. In fact, by choosing whole-grain staples like bread, pasta and rice you'll be picking foods which are richer in iron than their white equivalents. There are also some surprising sources including dried fruits, like apricots, prunes and raisins, as well as black treacle and even plain dark chocolate.

    How to get the most from your food

    Making some crafty combinations can help you get the most out of these iron-rich foods. For example, vitamin C helps you absorb iron, because it converts it into a more soluble form. Simply adding a handful of strawberries to a bowl of fortified breakfast cereal or enjoying a glass of orange juice alongside your cereal can increase iron uptake considerably. The same principle is used in this vegetable tagine recipe - which contains added foods that supply vitamin C, like courgettes and tomatoes, along-with peas, raisins and chickpeas, which are all good sources of iron.

    What to avoid...

    Selection of citrus fruits
    Just as some foods promote your absorption of iron, others can hinder it. Tea, for example, contains tannins that bind to iron, so it's best to enjoy your cuppa away from your main meal, or at least wait an hour after you've eaten. Other foods, including whole-grains as well as legumes, contain compounds called phytates, which can affect how well you absorb the iron they contain - once again, vitamin C can be helpful because it binds with phytates reducing their inhibitory effects. Similarly, beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which is found in plentiful supply in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, helps reduce the effects of phytates making iron more accessible. You can also minimise the phytates in grains, seeds and pulses by soaking, cooking and even sprouting.

    Dairy products like yogurt, cheese and milk as well as eggs interfere with iron absorption - that's because casein from milk and certain forms of calcium inhibit iron absorption, so make sure you try to eat a varied, balanced diet.

    A note on oxalic acid...

    Thanks to a certain cartoon character most of us are familiar with the iron-rich qualities of spinach , although we're often told that a compound called oxalic acid found in the leaves, as well as other greens like chard, limits our ability to absorb its iron. The good news is that Popeye may well have been right. Recent studies have thrown doubt over the negative impact of oxalic acid on iron absorption. So, go ahead and follow Popeye's lead - enjoy a serving of spinach but maximise its benefits by combining with vitamin C-rich foods, like citrus fruits.

    Our chickpeas with tomatoes and spinach is a great example or try more of our iron-rich veggie favourites.

    This article was last reviewed on 6th December 2018 by Kerry Torrens.

    Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

    All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.


    Comments, questions and tips

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    Be the first to comment...We'd love to hear how you got on with this recipe. Did you like it? Would you recommend others give it a try?
    Gertie123's picture
    28th Aug, 2016
    Hello Kerry, Thank you so much for writing this article, it is very interesting. I am an A level home economics student and am currently doing coursework on iron-deficiency anaemia. I was wondering if you have any more information on oxalates, phytates and tannins. Why do they hinder iron absorption and what foods are they found in? Also, you referenced studies that suggests oxalic acid does not have a negative effect on iron absorption. Could you please tell me when this study was written and who were the authors. Thanks again :)
    Kerry at GF
    9th Sep, 2016
    Thank you for your question. Details of the study I refer to may be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17440529. PubMed where this study is listed is a good resource should you ever wish to search for this or other nutritional topics. Another iron-related study which may also be of interest to you is http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11029010. The Vegetarian Society has a useful article on iron and on the effects of phytates, oxalates, tannins etc at the following https://www.vegsoc.org/iron. I hope this helps and best of luck with your coursework.
    Gertie123's picture
    20th Sep, 2016
    Thank you so much for these links and refererences. They have been very useful :-)
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