Iron in the diet

Iron deficiency or anaemia is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies. The world health organisation (WHO) stated that 25% of the world’s population is anaemic. According to a recent UK dietary survey, 5% of girls aged 11-18 years old are suffering from iron deficiency anaemia. Even more frightening is that 20% of European pregnant women are considered anaemic. Iron is an essential nutrient that isn’t just known for its deficiency state but also the benefits that it brings to the body in its sufficient state. Iron is responsible for cognitive function, energy metabolism, oxygen transport and immune function support.

What is Iron?

Iron is an essential nutrient, this means we are unable to make it in our body. It can be found in 3 forms within the body, ferric (Fe +3), ferrous (Fe+2) and ferritin which is the storage form of Iron. There is a common anecdote that we have enough iron in our body to make a nail The truth of the matter is that we have approximately 3-4 grams dependent on age and gender. It’s believed that around 60% of the body’s iron is used in red blood cells, whereas 25% is found in storage.

Iron Deficiency

As mentioned above, the dietary iron deficiency state is called anaemia. The symptoms of these include:

●  Shortness of breath

●  Pallor

●  Pale Skin

●  Fatigue and lethargy

The way that they diagnose this is via a blood test where they will assess your full blood count and red blood cell count.

Iron requirements

Our requirements for dietary iron depend on our gender, age and state of health. Below are the requirements for healthy men and women of varying ages




15-18 years

11.3mg / day

14.8mg / day

19-50 years

8.7 mg / day

14.8mg / day

50-74 years

8.7mg /day

8.7 mg /day

Iron requirements peak for both males and females during the crucial growing years in puberty. Soon after male requirements decrease to 8.7mg and remain that way into the senior years. Whereas female requirements don’t decrease until after puberty. Female Iron requirements are higher than males due to the menstrual cycle. You will find that as women reach the end of menarche their iron requirements will drop back down to the same as a male.

Food that contains Iron

Foods that can provide iron can be divided into heme or non-heme iron:



Poultry- chicken, duck, turkey

Grains - Oats, spelt, quinoa, fortified cereals

Seafood-oysters, clams, mussels

Vegetables - Kale, spinach, swiss chard, mushrooms

Meat- beef, pork, lamb

Nuts and Seeds- sesame seeds, pumpkins seeds, cashews, chia seeds, flaxseeds

Fish- haddock, salmon, tuna

Fruits- Prunes, dried fruits

Bean and Legumes-soybeans, lentils, kidney beans, black beans.

Supplemental Iron

Some people who struggle with consuming iron in food may like to take an iron supplement. This can be sourced from multiple forms of iron:

●  Ferrous Fumarate

●  Ferrous Sulphate

●  Ferrous Citrate

●  Ferrous Gluconate

Typically, the strength of an iron supplement will vary from 14-34mg of elemental iron. You may want to take this for a period of 2-3 weeks to see improvements in your blood tests. Some high dosage iron can cause some side effects. Although their presentations may be worrying, the symptoms are not. However, if any of the following cause you discomfort or unease then please cease taking them and seek to advise from a Nutritionist, Dietitian or Doctor:

● Nausea

●  Loss of appetite

●  Constipation or diarrhoea

●  Dark or black poo

Increasing Iron absorption

The body is able to maintain tight control over how much iron is in the body at any one time. It does this through homeostasis. Iron supply is brought about by dietary iron, which can either be promoted or inhibited. Large losses of iron are caused by bleeding or the menstrual cycle. In addition, the extra burden is placed on iron during a period of growth, pregnancy or lactation. The body is able to adjust its iron absorption based on its iron status.

Iron is absorbed through the mucous wall of the large intestine (duodenum), factors that affect Iron absorption are shown below:



Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

Tannins (tea, coffee, fizzy drinks)

Heme Iron (meat, fish, seafood)

Phytates (most vegetables)

Caseinophosphopeptides (CPP)


Citrate and Malate

Calcium (dairy products and some dark green veg)

Health Benefits of Iron

According to the European food safety authority (EFSA) Iron promotes the following health benefits:

●  Cognitive Function in all, and cognitive development in children

●  Energy metabolism

●  Formation of red blood cells (haemoglobin) and oxygen transport

●  Immune system function

●  A reduction in tiredness and fatigue

●  Cell division

How can you increase Iron in your diet?

●  Choose a high-quality Iron supplement

●  Choose nuts/seeds as your everyday snack

●  Incorporate a variety of heme and non-heme sources of iron in your diet.

●  If you are plant-based opt for tofu, beans and legumes rich in iron as well as dark green leafy vegetables.

●  Try to increase some of the iron promoters in your diet.

●  Choose dark chocolate over milk and white as it is a great source of iron.

●  Pad out your plate with iron-rich dark green leafy vegetables.


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●  Essential Human Nutrition by Jim Mann and A.Stuart Truswell.