Spotlight on: a high-iron diet
Are you getting enough iron? Nutritionist Jo Williams explains why it's important for good health, and which high-iron foods to add to your diet. Plus, iron-rich recipes for vegetarians and vegans
An essential nutrient for growth and development, iron is a mineral that plays a critical role because it forms part of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying compound in red blood cells.
Why do we need iron?
Iron also plays a part in creating energy, muscle function, DNA synthesis and in supporting our immune defences.
We obtain most of the iron we need from our diet, and our body carefully monitors iron levels, absorbing more when our need is high and less when stores are adequate.
Check out our Vitamins and Minerals Information Hub to learn more about key nutrients – from whether you’re getting enough vitamin D to the top 10 healthiest sources of vitamin C, plus vital minerals you need in your diet.
The benefits of iron include:
- Gives you energy
- Contributes to muscle function
- Supports the immune system
- Boosts reproductive system, with more iron intake recommended during pregnancy
- Regulates hormone creation
How much iron do we need?
The Nutrient Reference Intake (NRI) for women of reproductive age is 14.8mg iron per day, with an additional requirement recommended during pregnancy. For men and non-menstruating women, the requirement is 8.7mg per day.
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In the UK, iron deficiency is common, and particularly so among infants under two, teenage girls, pregnant women and the elderly. According to UK government surveys, the majority of women and girls of menstruating age do not meet their dietary target.
Can we have too much iron?
Haemochromatosis is a specific genetic disorder in which iron builds up over time, leading to excessive levels. If you have a family member with haemochromatosis, you should be screened to determine if you are at risk. It is hard to diagnose, but one of the symptoms is fatigue. If you are feeling tired all the time, it is recommended that you go to your GP and have a blood test before taking iron supplements.
Read more about this condition at the NHS website.
What are the signs of iron deficiency?
There are a number of reasons why your iron levels may be low, these include:
• Blood loss – due to heavy periods, peptic ulcers, haemorrhoids or through donating blood
• Increased needs – such as pregnancy or periods of rapid growth, like childhood and adolescence
• Inadequate amounts in your diet – although many plant foods provide iron, it's a little harder to absorb, so be mindful of this if you follow a vegan or plant-based diet
• Poor absorption – lower levels of stomach acid caused by atrophic gastritis, a condition common in the elderly; chronic diarrhoea or prolonged use of antacids may reduce your ability to absorb iron
Do some foods interfere with iron absorption?
Some naturally occurring compounds found in plant foods are thought to inhibit the absorption of iron. These include:
• tannins found in caffeinated and decaffeinated tea
• phytates in wheat, beans, peas and lentils as well as peanuts
• oxylates in foods like spinach, nuts, chocolate, parsley and rhubarb
• casein and certain forms of calcium in dairy foods, including yogurt, cheese and milk
• phosvitin found in egg yolk
What is iron-deficiency anaemia?
As your iron stores dwindle, your body's ability to produce healthy red blood cells will reduce. This results in low numbers of red blood cells circulating in the blood and is often referred to as iron-deficiency anaemia.
• pale complexion
• heart palpitations
• an increased susceptibility to infection
• difficulty concentrating
How to ensure iron levels are adequate during pregnancy
Some mums-to-be do not meet the increased need for iron during pregnancy – if you're concerned, please consult your GP or midwife.
Pregnant women should avoid liver and any related products, such as liver pâté, as these can contain high levels of vitamin A, which may be harmful to a developing baby.
What are the food sources of iron?
There are two forms of iron found in food: haem iron from animal foods, which is easier for us to absorb, and non-haem iron found in plant-based foods. Vitamin C helps promote iron absorption, so combining vitamin-C-rich foods, like peppers, with those supplying iron, like lentils, may help support iron absorption. Using cast iron cooking pans may also help support your iron uptake.
Rich sources of animal-based (haem) iron
• Chicken thighs
• Clams, mussels and oysters
Rich sources of plant-based (non-haem) iron
• Kidney beans
• Leafy green vegetables
• Dried figs and apricots
• Oatmeal and rye
• Brewer's yeast
• Blackstrap molasses
• Pinto beans
If you think you may have iron-deficiency anaemia talk to your GP – do not supplement with iron unless advised to do so.
Recipes that are high in iron
Liver & bacon sauté with potatoes & parsley
Chicken liver & chorizo salad
Mussels with tomatoes & chilli
Speedy spaghetti with clams
Chinese-style noodles with tofu & hazelnuts
Chickpeas & roasted veg tagine
Moroccan lamb with apricots, almonds & mint
Pork with pears, prunes & verjuice
Puy lentil salad with soy beans, sugar snap peas & broccoli
Lemony rice & peas
Quinoa chilli with avocado & coriander
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This content was updated on 19th October 2023.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist 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.
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