Getting enough iron is key to performing at our best, ensuring we’re high in energy, thinking clearly and fighting off colds. Knowing the role of iron in the body and the types of foods rich in animal and plant based iron is important. This is especially true if you are following a vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diet (aka us!).
What is Iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that your body cannot make, so you must get it from foods. You need it to transport oxygen in your body, regulate cell growth, maintain brain function, metabolism and endocrine (hormone production) function and it also plays a role in energy production and immune function. The bottom line is that iron is imperative for a healthy, functioning body.
Which foods contain it? Animal vs plant sources.
Iron can be found in both animal and plant food sources.
Animal-based iron (aka haem iron) is the best form of iron as it is most readily absorbed by the body (around 40% of it is absorbed). Examples include organ meats e.g. liver, beef, pork, fish, chicken, veal, oysters, mussels.
Plant-based iron (aka non-haem iron) is absorbed much less efficiently than haem iron. Food sources include grains, dark leafy green vegetables, dried fruits, lentils, kidney beans and tofu.
How much iron do we need?
Too much or too little iron can have serious repercussions. It is a good idea for women to get their iron levels checked regularly by a GP as during reproductive years they have a much higher iron requirement than men, due to menstruation. As such some women can find it difficult to meet their daily requirements with food alone.
|Age||How much do you need?|
|1 – 3 years||9mg per day|
|4 – 8 years||10mg per day|
|9 – 13 years||8mg per day|
|Girls 14 – 18 years||15mg per day|
|Boys 14 – 18 years||11mg per day|
|Females 19 – 50 years||18mg per day|
|Females 51+||8mg per day|
|Males 19+||8mg per day|
|Pregnant women||27mg per day|
Foods that affect iron absorption
Some foods can help your body to absorb iron, while others can inhibit it.
Vitamin C can help improve the absorption of iron from your food. Try and include a vitamin C rich food with an iron containing meal. Examples of vitamin C rich foods include citrus fruits, dark leafy greens, tomatoes and capsicum. Cooking vegetables can also increase the amount of available non-haem iron. For instance, the body absorbs more iron from cooked broccoli compared to raw broccoli.
On the other hand, there are certain compounds (called polyphenols) found in tea and coffee that can reduce the absorption of non-haem iron. In fact, drinking just one cup of black tea within 60 minutes of eating may reduce iron absorption by up to 70%. It is best to wait a couple of hours before having a tea after a meal. Calcium can also inhibit iron absorption as it binds to iron, thereby limiting absorption.
How to tell if you might be iron deficient?
Certain groups are at increased risk of iron deficiency, including:
- Teenage girls
- Menstruating women
- Vegetarians or vegans
- Pregnant women
Some symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Fatigue, dizziness
- Poorer attention span and mental function
If you think you might be deficient, we recommend consulting your GP and getting a blood test.
Iron is essential to healthy, happy humans. There are two types found in food – haem (animal based) and non-haem (plant based). To maximise intake include a variety haem sources such as meat, fish, poultry and non-haem sources such as beans, lentils, oats and green vegetables as well as vitamin C rich foods during your meals.
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