Always tired, sore, or feel like your complexion isn’t looking its best? Chances are you’re low in iron. Nutritionist Rob Hobson brings you the symptoms to watch for plus an extensive list of foods high in iron and a delicious recipe to get you started
Food surveys looking at the diet of the UK population have shown that 46 percent of teenage girls and 23 percent of adult women have iron intakes below the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake, which may put them at risk of anaemia. The same surveys also show that many women fail to meet the recommended dietary target of iron intake in their diets of 14.8mg.
46 percent of teenage girls and 23 percent of adult women are low in iron
Why you need iron in your diet
Stored in bone marrow and the liver, this essential mineral is a vital component of haemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body from the lungs to tissues and carbon dioxide back in the other direction. Iron is also important for maintaining a healthy immune system as well as having a role in the production of energy, DNA synthesis and muscle function.
So, what happens if you don’t get enough iron in your diet?
As your body draws upon its iron reserves, red blood cells begin to contain less haemoglobin, which at first may simply go unnoticed. However, if low intakes of iron in your diet continue, then you could start to show symptoms such as tiredness and fatigue as well as increasing your risk of developing iron-deficiency anaemia.
If low intakes of iron continue then you could start to exhibit symptoms such as tiredness and fatigue.
Women are more likely to experience iron deficiency, and although diet plays a role there are often other factors involved that can deplete the body of iron such as heavy periods, pregnancy and childbirth, illness or prolonged use of certain medications that can cause bleeding in the gut (common in older people).
It’s also worth pointing out that excessive use of high strength supplements may impact on iron absorption, particularly calcium and zinc (too much zinc inhibits the uptake of copper which is required for iron absorption).
8 symptoms of iron deficiency:
- Unusual weakness and fatigue
- Poor concentration
- Pale complexion
- Brittle nails
- Muscle soreness
- Recurrent infections
- Always feeling cold
Who’s at risk?
- People following extreme low calorie diet regimes (especially if partnered with excessive training)
- Older people
- Non-meat eaters, particularly vegans
- Teenage girls (a combination of low intake, menstrual losses and growth spurts)
- Pre-menopausal women who experience heavy periods
- Pregnant women (particularly during the third trimester)
What to eat to get more iron in your diet?
The first food to come to mind when you talk about iron is usually red meat but there are other really useful sources you may not have thought of before listed below. Although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, a serving of calf’s liver provides all of your daily requirement. My sister was very iron deficient after losing a lot of blood during childbirth, shortly after which she was away in the Mediterranean and asked me to put together a list of foods. I remember being really surprised by a few particular foods that were available to her in abundance; mussels, dried figs and dried spices. Needless to say it didn’t take too long to get her iron levels back to normal.
18 foods high in iron:
- Grilled fillet steak — (2.3mg)
- Fried calf liver (12.2mg)
- Black strap molasses (4.7mg)
- Mussels (6.8mg)
- Kale (1.7mg)
- Dried figs (4.2mg)
- Soya beans (2.3mg)
- Cooked red lentils (2.4mg)
- Oats (4.72mg)
- Cooked Qunioa (1.5mg)
- Tofu (1.1mg)
- Eggs (1.9mg)
- Brazil nuts (2.5mg)
- Canned Chick peas (1.0mg)
- Canned Red kidney beans (1.5mg)
- Curry powder (two tsp = 6g) (58.3mg)
- Dried oregano (two tsp = 2g) (44.0mg)
- Fortified breakfast cereals (bran flakes) (24.3mg)
You can look up the iron content of foods at nutritiondata.self.com.
It’s also not just about food intake, giving your body a helping hand to increase iron absorption can also be useful dietary strategy. Iron exists in two forms within food known as haem (from meat) and non-haem, the latter of which is less easy to absorb.
You can increase the absorption of non-haem iron by combining it with a good source of vitamin C, which is good for non-meat eaters to know. Rich sources of vitamin C include red peppers, orange juice, spring greens, cauliflower and broccoli.
Giving your body a helping hand to increase iron absorption can also be useful dietary strategy.
In contrast, some foods can negatively impact on iron absorption such as those rich in phytates (legumes and wholegrains) and those rich in oxylates (spinach, beetroot, rhubarb and certain nuts). Rather than focus too much on these foods, concentrate on maximising your iron absorption by ensuring your diet is varied and includes plenty of foods rich in this mineral. However, it is a good idea to avoid tea (includes decaffeinated) with and shortly after meals as the tannins are thought to inhibit iron uptake.
If you think you may have low iron stores then your GP can carry out a simple blood test to check your levels and as well as including more iron-rich foods in your diet, may suggest an iron supplement. Supplements can cause stomach upset and constipation to its important you stick to the recommended dosage and keep all supplements containing iron out of the reach of children. If you are taking an iron supplement then avoid any form of caffeine or calcium half an hour within taking it as this to can impeach on absorption
5 ways to get more iron in your diet
Get spicy! Spices contain a very concentrated source of iron and although you only add a small amount to dishes, every little counts if your trying to maintain healthy levels of this mineral. Cook from fresh and include plenty of dried spices.
Pimp your porridge Try oats with chopped nuts and dried figs for breakfast (include a glass of orange juice to boost uptake).
Snack on edamame It’s a great way to boost your intake.
Eat more beans Mixed bean stew makes a great iron-rich vegetarian option.
Pack in the greens include a few servings daily (these veggies also make great soup ingredients).
I have cheated a bit this week by sourcing a recipe from the web, but for good reason. I increased the iron content by adding more spices and green vegetable (okra). Try adapting your favourite recipes using the foods in the table above. I have also chosen to serve the dish quinoa as it has a higher iron content than rice.
Prawn and Tomato Curry
- Serves 4
- 400 cals per serving
- 7.3g iron (50% RNI for women)
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 large onion, chopped
- Thumb sized piece of ginger, grated
- 5 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 120g okra, sliced into 1cm pieces
- 1 tsp golden caster sugar
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tbsp garam masala
- 1 tsp vinegar
- 400g can chopped tomatoes
- 400g raw king prawns
- Handful of coriander, chopped
- 200g quinoa
- To cook the quinoa first rinse in a sieve under cold water then place in a medium saucepan with 600ml of cold water. Bring to the boil then cook for a further 8 minutes until tender and the seeds begin to sprout then drain using a sieve.
- Heat the oil in a deep frying pan
- Add the mustard seeds and cook until they start to pop then add the onions and cook gently for about 8 minutes until soft
- Add the ginger, garlic, chilli and okra, cooking for a further 2 minutes
- Add the sugar and spices, cooking for 1-2 minutes until they become really fragrant
- Add the vinegar and tomatoes, season with a little salt and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring as the sauce thickens
- Add the prawns, reduce the heat and cook for a further 8 minutes adding water if the sauce becomes too thick
- Remove from the heat and stir through the coriander
- Serve in small bowls with the quinoa
For more information about anaemia visit NHS Choices.
Nutritionist Rob Hobson runs consultancies RHNutrition and HOPE (Helping Older People to Eat Well) and has built a reputation as a trustworthy and inspirational source of information working for the NHS, private clients and leading food and nutrition companies including supplements provider Healthspan. An obsessed foodie and skilled cook, Rob regularly cooks for celebrity clients and contributes to national press including Stella, Daily Mail, Grazia, Harpers Bazaar, Runners Fitness, Healthy magazine and Women’s Health.