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Are You Getting Enough Iron?

Posted by Anne Schneyder on 11 April 2014
Are You Getting Enough Iron?

Are you tired all the time? Are your iron levels low? We all need to get enough iron from the food that we eat every day. Iron is needed for the immune system, and is a key component of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells. It gives the red cells their colour, and it carries oxygen to all body tissues and takes carbon dioxide back to the lungs.

What happens when we don’t get enough Iron?

If iron intake is poor, then iron stores in the body start to drop, haemoglobin levels may fall and you can delelop anaemia. Anaemia also can be caused by loss of blood in the body so if you are diagnosed with anaemia, your doctor will look for dietary and non-dietary causes. Young children, athletes and teenagers are at risk of iron deficiency, and vegetarians can have lower iron levels than meat eaters. It is important to plan a vegetarian diet carefully.

The first signs of anaemia are tiredness, lack of energy, tiredness, poor concentration and frequent infections. Other symptoms can include brittle, flat nails which may develop ridges, sore mouth, smooth tongue and painful cracks in the skin at the corners of the mouth.

Where is iron found?

There are two types of iron in our food:

1. Haem iron

Haem iron is found in animal foods. This kind of iron is absorbed into the body very well- around 20% of the iron is absorbed.

Red meat is the best source of haem iron. Chicken, fish and eggs do contain valuable iron but much less than red meats such as beef, lamb and kangaroo. You might like to try some offal meats such as liver or kidney as they are very high in iron. Unfortunately they are not very popular, but pate is made from chicken livers and can be spread on crackers for a light lunch or snack.

2. Non-haem Iron

Non-haem iron is found in eggs and plant foods such as:

  • Whole eggs
  • Wholegrain breads, cereals, pasta, rice and crackers
  • Iron fortified breakfast cereals
  • Green leafy vegetables e.g. broccoli, spinach, silverbeet
  • Dried peas and beans: baked beans, kidney beans, 3 bean mix, lentils, chick peas
  • Nuts and nut pastes
  • Dried Fruit

Only about 5% of non-haem iron is absorbed by the body, so we need to eat more of this type of iron to be able to reach the recommended intake.

Improving Iron Absorption

The amount of iron absorbed from food depends on how much your body needs. If you lack iron, you will absorb more. Iron will be better absorbed by the body if you include one or more of the following at the same time:

1.  Meat, fish or chicken:

Even a small amount of haem will help the non-haem iron to be absorbed better. If follow a vegetarian diet, you will need to be very careful to include enough iron in the vegetable based foods.

2.  Vitamin C containing foods

Vitamin C will increase the absorption of non- haem iron. Vitamin C is found particularly in foods such as citrus fruit, orange juice, berry fruits, capsicum, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, radish, potato, tomato and parsley. Include some of these foods at every meal.

Foods that interfere with iron absorption

Some foods can interfere with iron absorption and should be eaten at different times to the iron containing foods:

  • Large quantities of unprocessed bran (more than 2-3 tablespoons daily)
  • Excessive quantities of milk (more than 1 litre per day)
  • Tannins in strongly brewed tea. Drink weak tea and try to avoid tea at meal times
  • Antacids and aspirin. Seek advice from your GP if you are taking these medications
  • Some herbal preparations


Some people will require an iron supplement when levels in the blood are too low.  These should be prescribed by your doctor. Sometimes they can cause gastrointestinal upset or they can make you constipated, so discuss with your dietitian or doctor. Don’t be alarmed if they make your stool go a dark colour!

How much iron do I need?

The table below shows the amount of iron needed by different age groups. Menstruating and pregnant women are the groups who need the most iron in their diet.

Age group  Recommended intake per day
0 to 6 months 0.2mg (iron will be provided by breast milk or formula)
7 to 12 months 11mg
1 to 3 years   9mg
4 to 8 years  10mg
9 to 13 years 8mg
Girls 14 to 18 years 15mg
Boys 14 to 18 years 11mg
Women 18 to 50 years 18mg
Women 50 to 70+ years 8mg
Men 18 to 70+ years 8mg
Pregnant women 27mg
Breastfeeding women 9mg





How much iron is found in the foods I eat?

Food Amount Iron (mg)
Chicken liver pate 100g 9mg
Beef, lean, grilled 100g 3.2mg
Lamb, lean, grilled 100g 2.4mg
Pork fillet, grilled 100g 1.0mg
White fish, grilled 100g 1.0mg
Chicken breast, no skin, grilled 100g  0.5mg
Tuna, canned in water, drained 100g 1.1mg
Baked beans ½ cup 1.8mg
Eggs 2 large 1.6mg
Whole wheat breakfast biscuits 2 biscuits 4.2mg
Natural muesli 30g 2.3mg
Wholemeal bread 1 slice 0.6mg
Brown rice, boiled ½ cup 0.5mg
White rice, boiled ½ cup 0.3mg
Mixed nuts 30g 0.8mg
Peanut paste 1 Tbsp 0.5mg
Dried apricots 30g 1.0mg





Author:Anne Schneyder