Along with macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats), micronutrients are very important for our health. Micronutrients are commonly known as vitamins and minerals and are only needed in small amounts. However, we need to obtain most of these vitamins and minerals from our diet because our body cannot always synthesise them. Our associate nutritionist, Nourhan has written this article explaining all about dietary iron and why it's important.
Firstly, why is Iron important?
Iron is essential for the transportation of oxygen around our body as it is a vital element for creating haemoglobin.
Iron plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy immune system.
A lack of iron in our body can lead to a serious anaemia condition – iron deficiency anaemia.
If you have been diagnosed with iron-deficiency anaemia, you will as a consequence have low iron levels in the blood. This is still a relatively common nutritional deficiency worldwide. This deficiency tends to affect certain age groups such as women of childbearing age and teenage girls and those who experience heavy periods. Individuals with one of these conditions could also be susceptible to a low iron level:
People with Coeliac disease, Ulcerative colitis, or Crohn's disease
People with Sickle cell anaemia or Thalassemia
Iron deficiency is often the cause of anaemia. The NDNS (the survey which looks into diet and health-related behaviours in the UK) shows that average daily intakes of iron from food are likely to be inadequate (less than the recommended amount) for teenage girls and adult women.
How much Iron do you need every day?
We need different amounts of iron in our diet and that is because our needs depend on our age and gender.
As you can see, females of childbearing age and teenage girls need to ensure they include varieties of iron-rich foods in their diet because their requirements are higher. Also, it is worth mentioning that the recommended daily intake of iron for pregnant women is higher than the figure in the above table, so make sure to speak with your GP, registered nutritionist or dietitian about iron requirements in the early weeks of pregnancy.
How do I get iron from my diet?
Most of us can get all the vitamins and minerals needed from what we eat and drink. However, requirements may differ according to your gender, age and health conditions. Here are some examples of iron-rich foods:
Animal-based sources (Per 100g)
Beef liver steak: around 6mg
Red meat: around 3mg
Turkey: around 1.5mg
Eggs: around 2.2mg
Plant-based sources (Per 100g)
Legumes, such as red kidney beans, chickpeas, edamame beans and lentils: 2mg
Some nuts and seeds: vary depends on the type and quality - for example, 28g of pumpkin seeds contains around 2.5mg of iron
Dried fruit e.g., dried apricots: around 3.4mg
Leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale: around 2.5mg
Also, another excellent source of iron in the UK is fortified foods. Some food products, such as white, brown flour and some breakfast cereals have added iron. Think about including these foods in your diet as they can contribute to your iron intake.
Our nutritionist, Nourhan, has developed a simple example of a weekly meal plan to boost your iron intake. Check out the iron-rich meals plan.
How do we absorb iron?
There are two types of iron in food: haem and non-haem iron. Explained in another way, iron can have two different structures depending on the food sources. This can be from animal sources (called the haem iron) or plant-based foods (called the non-haem iron). Our body can absorb the haem iron, which can be found in animal sources better than the iron from in plant-based diets.
Let’s jump into how we can boost the absorption of iron from our foods.
A simple tip to increase iron absorption is to have a source of vitamin C with your iron-rich meal.
Below are some suggestions of tasty combinations to enhance your iron absorption:
Broccoli, chickpeas and meat hotpot
Spinach and sweet bell peppers and tofu stir-fry
Adding some yellow peppers to your vegetarian bean dishes
Having berries, kiwis or dried figs with your oatmeal
Add a cup of orange, lemon or grapefruit juice with your iron-rich plant-based meal.
Another tip to enhance iron absorption from plant-based foods like pulses and nuts is to soak them in water for around 40 mins to 1 hour, or even more hours if possible, before cooking or eating them. Soaking will enhance iron absorption and also helps decrease the bloating that might result from these foods.
On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that there are some dietary behaviours that block/inhibit your absorption of iron. Drinking black tea, espresso or red wine with or just after having your iron-rich meal often decrease your absorption iron. We recommend trying to leave 30 to 40 mins before or after your meal then enjoy your beverage.
A note on iron supplements
Iron supplements are only recommended to individuals who are diagnosed with iron-deficiency anaemia to improve their deficiency and to help them reach normal iron levels. Only take supplements after seeking advice from your GP. It is important to be careful not to take iron supplements when they are not prescribed as this could have negative health outcomes.
Nourhan specialises in family nutrition and personalised healthy eating advice. She is passionate about bringing her experience working in the food industry together with her nutrition knowledge to support individuals to meet their nutritional requirements and health goals. Please visit Nourhan's profile to request Nourhan's expertise.
Additional resources: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/iron-deficiency-anaemia/