by Dr Reetu

Iron deficiency is more common than you may think. Iron is required for your body to produce haemoglobin to transport oxygen to all parts of the body.  It is essential to feel energized throughout the day—iron deficiency results in lethargy, weakness, tiredness and irritability.

People at risk of iron deficiency

  • Menstruating women
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • Children during rapid growth cycles
  • Vegetarians and vegans
  • Frequent blood donors

When caused by inadequate iron intake, iron deficiency anaemia can be prevented by eating a diet high in iron-rich foods and vitamin C.

Iron from food

Including iron-rich foods in your diet can help increase your iron intake. Iron comes in two forms: haem and non-haem.

Haem Iron

Haem iron comes from animal sources that originally contained haemoglobin and include:

  • red meat
  • fish/shellfish
  • poultry and
  • offal

Red meats and offal are considered to have twice as much iron as chicken and three times as fish. Generally, the redder the meat, the higher the iron.

Non-haem Iron

Non-haem iron comes from plant sources and include:

  • whole grains (iron-fortified bread and cereals)
  • nuts and seeds
  • dried fruit
  • legumes (lentils, chickpeas)
  • egg yolk and
  • leafy greens (kale, cabbage, spinach).

Haem iron is more readily absorbed than non-haem iron even though many plant foods are richer in iron. According to The CSIRO total wellbeing diet book, the body only absorbs 2-5 percent of non-haem iron compared to 15-25 percent of haem iron.

Therefore, vegans and vegetarians need to be extra careful to get regular blood tests with their medical practitioner and include plenty of iron-rich foods in their diet.  It is recommended that the iron-rich foods be consumed with foods and drinks that enhance iron absorption while avoiding those that inhibit absorption.

Foods that enhance iron absorption

It is shown that Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) enhances the absorption of non-haem iron found in plant foods by up to 2 to 3 times if taken at the same time.

Some good Vitamin C sources include fruits (kiwifruit, strawberries, orange, lemon, pineapple and blueberries). And vegetables (tomato, capsicum, broccoli)

Foods that inhibit iron absorption

Calcium, zinc and tannins inhibit the absorption of iron.

Calcium is found in foods such as milk, yogurt, cheese, sardines, canned salmon, tofu, broccoli, almonds, figs, turnip greens, and rhubarb the only known substance to inhibit the absorption of both non-haem and haem iron.

Tannins fall into a class of plant compounds called polyphenols. They are found in regular tea, herbal teas such as peppermint tea, red wine, coffee and some berries (such as cranberries).

Additionally, cocoa, unprocessed bran, some soy proteins and medications can block the body’s absorption of non-haem iron.

Avoid eating or drinking iron blockers at the same time as iron-rich foods to ensure adequate iron absorption.

How much Iron do you need?

How to meet your iron needs infographic
Infographic courtesy of Healthdirect Australia.

If you think you have symptoms of iron deficiency, talk to your doctor. Self-diagnosing is not recommended. Most iron deficiency forms can be treated fairly easily, usually through an iron-rich diet or iron supplements, if your doctor recommends them.

Important: overloading the body with iron can be dangerous because excess iron accumulation can damage your liver and cause other complications.