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
 

01 .Introduction

Iron-iStock

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.

Anaemia

  • 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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Women of child-bearing age

  • These women lose more iron because they menstruate.
  • They need more iron during pregnancy.
  • Women are more likely to go on low-calorie diets which can be low in iron.
  • Research suggests that about 20 to 40% of women of child-bearing age fall significantly short of getting the recommended amount of iron from their diet. These women aren’t automatically iron-deficient, but they’re at an increased risk of it.
  • Based on blood tests, only around 8% of women seem to be genuinely iron-deficient, and even fewer — around 2 to 5% — get iron-deficiency anaemia.

Others at risk

  • Babies
  • Vegetarians
  • Athletes
  • Regular blood donors

They can end up eating too little iron for their body’s needs for growth and physical activity.

If your iron intake from food is insufficient and you fit into one of the groups above, you could be at risk of iron deficiency.

Low risk

Most men and post-menopausal women can easily meet their iron needs through a normal diet.

03.What foods help/hinder iron?

 

How much iron you absorb from food, particularly non-haem iron from plant foods, also depends on what you eat and drink at the same time. A number of substances in foods influence the percentage of iron absorbed from foods.

Foods that help

Vitamin C-rich foods (like most fruits) and the protein in meat can increase the amount of iron you absorb from fruits, vegetables and cereals.

Tip: You can probably double the amount of iron your body gets from a breakfast cereal, for example, if you have a glass of orange juice at the same time.

Foods that hinder

Some compounds in foods, called inhibitors, bind with iron and stop it being absorbed through the walls of the bowel into the bloodstream. Some inhibitors are present in foods which also contain iron, while others you can simply avoid eating or drinking at the same time as you consume your iron. This is particularly important for non-haem iron, which is hard to absorb anyway.

Inhibitors include:

  • Tannins found in tea and coffee.
  • Phytates in beans, peas and lentils, and in fibre-rich cereals, such as bran.
  • Oxalates in spinach and some other dark green vegetables.
  • Phosvitin in egg yolk.
  • Antacids and aspirin.
  • Calcium and zinc supplements — the calcium and zinc compete for absorption with the iron in food.

04.Do you need a supplement?

 

Diet before pills

You can improve your iron intake with a better diet. Don’t take an iron supplement ‘just in case’ — you may be wasting your money and there’s a remote chance you may be seriously overloading your body.

Blood test

If you feel tired and run down, talk to your doctor first to see if there may be another problem. A simple blood test will establish whether you’re iron-deficient. If you are, your doctor will discuss with you how to treat the deficiency. Ideally you should change your diet and eat more iron-rich foods, but if this is not feasible or not enough, a supplement may be recommended.

While food is the best way to get iron, some people, particularly pregnant women, may require an iron supplement to replenish and maintain their stores.

Iron boosting tips

  • Red meat, fish or poultry Include these as a regular part of your diet (unless you’re a vegetarian).
  • Citrus. Have a piece of citrus fruit or glass of juice with your breakfast cereal
  • Breakfast cereal. Choose an iron-fortified one and don’t add unprocessed bran — it’ll inhibit absorption of iron.
  • Dieting. If you’re on a slimming diet, be particularly careful to include enough iron-rich foods.
  • Tea and coffee. Limit drinks between meals.
  • Vegetables. Choose tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin and cabbage, as the non-haem iron in them is comparatively easily absorbed.
  • Choose more iron-rich foods if you donate blood or — for women — have heavy periods.
  • Supplements. If you have to take supplements of other minerals, such as calcium or zinc, don’t take them with meals.

Too much iron?

Most people are unlikely to get too much iron from food.

Iron storage disease

About 1 in 300 Australians has Haemachromatosis, a genetic abnormality which can cause excessive iron absorption and storage in the body.

This can damage the liver, pancreas and heart over time. As iron slowly accumulates, insidious signs and symptoms can suggest many other complaints, such as the early onset of arthritis or stomach complaints.

Symptoms: The most persistent symptoms are tiredness, fatigue, not feeling well for a prolonged period of time, abdominal discomfort, swollen liver, joint pains, slate grey appearance or bronze complexion, loss of sex drive. You should see your GP if you've noticed these symptoms.

Some evidence has been found to suggest that high levels of stored iron in the body may increase the risk of heart disease and cancer. However, most research doesn’t support this link and scientists believe there is no reason to cut back on dietary iron intake.

Warning: For a toddler, only a handful of iron pills can be poisonous, so if you have small children, keep any vitamin and mineral supplements in their original, closed container, out of children’s reach and sight, preferably in a locked cabinet.