Iron - are you getting enough?

The facts on the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and what to do about it.
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  • Updated:1 Nov 2005



In brief

  • Women of child-bearing age are most at risk of too little iron.
  • There are different types of iron found in food and they are absorbed differently.
  • Some foods help your body absorb iron, other make it more difficult.
  • An iron supplement isn’t always the first thing you should reach for.
  • There are things you can do to boost your iron intake.

What does iron do?

Iron's most important role in the body is as part of haemoglobin, the red pigment in your blood that carries oxygen to your body’s tissues.

Please note: this information was current as of November 2005 but is still a useful guide today.

Which foods have iron?

Foods containing haem iron, Iron (mg)

Foods containing non-haem iron, Iron (mg)

1 slice of fried lamb’s liver 4.4 1/2 cup of muesli 3.8
3/4 cup of diced cooked beef 4.1 1 cup of boiled wholemeal pasta 3.1
2 grilled thick sausages 3.4 2 wholewheat breakfast biscuits 2.6
1 small grilled beef rib steak 3.0 1/4 cup of cashew nuts 2.4
2 grilled midloin lamb chops 2.0 1/2 cup of baked beans 2.2
1 grilled pork butterfly steak 1.2 1 cup of cooked rolled oats 1.8
1/2 roast chicken breast 0.7 1/2 cup of cooked lentils/chick peas 1.8
1 large grilled fish fillet 0.5 1 slice of wholemeal bread 0.7

There are two types of iron in foods:

Haem iron

  • Red meat is a particularly good source
  • It's also found in other animal products such as chicken and fish.
  • Haem iron is easier for our bodies to absorb.
  • You absorb between 20 and 35% of the haem iron from animal foods

Non-haem iron

  • Found mainly in plant foods such as bread, cereals, fruit and vegetables
  • It's much harder to absorb - between 2 and 15% is absorbed in plant foods.

The ability of different people’s bodies to absorb iron varies a lot and partly explains these large ranges. Absorption naturally increases if your body is running short on iron or you need extra, for example during pregnancy.

Iron deficiency

As your body’s iron stores get lower you may begin to notice these symptoms.

  • Tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating.


  • Eventually too little iron means your body’s iron reserves are completely emptied. At this stage blood cell production falls and you get iron-deficiency anaemia.
  • Besides becoming more run down, you increase your risk of infection.
  • Iron-deficiency anaemia is unlikely to be fatal, but it can unnecessarily reduce the quality of your life.


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