Iron is an essential mineral that has many important roles in the human body. It plays an integral role in the formation of red blood cells to help carry oxygen around the body. There are 2 types of dietary iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found in animal sources such as red meat, fish and poultry and is better absorbed than non-haem. Non-haem is the most common dietary iron and is found in plant foods such as lentils and beans and is often added to foods that are ‘iron-enriched’ or ‘iron-fortified’ such as breakfast cereals.
The absorption of iron from our diet is influenced by a number of different factors. Including foods in the same meal that enhance non-haem iron absorption is very important for people who struggle to meet their daily requirements. Vitamin C improves the absorption of plant sources of iron, however tannin found in tea, calcium, polyphenols and whole-grains can decrease absorption. Avoid drinking tea or coffee with your meal to aid absorption. A diet high in low nutrient dense foods such as ready meals, white bread, crisps, pastry and fizzy drinks is less likely to provide sufficient amounts of iron.
Benefits of supplementation:
Most people should be able to get sufficient amounts of iron from a healthy diet without the need for supplements. The recommended average amount of iron is:
Iron deficiency anaemia is associated with low dietary intake of iron, inadequate absorption or excessive blood loss. Signs of deficiency include feeling tired, decreased performance, decreased immune function and difficulty maintaining body temperature. Iron supplements are only recommended if diet alone cannot restore appropriate levels or laboratory tests have confirmed iron deficiency anaemia. The intake of high doses of iron supplements is dangerous to health and people should initially seek to boost their intake through a healthy well-balanced diet before seeking medical advice from a doctor.
Populations most at risk of iron deficiency include; endurance runners, vegetarians, pregnant women, children, women with heavy menstrual losses, people undergoing routine dialysis and people with gastrointestinal disorders. If you fall into any of these categories and display symptoms listed above, please seek medical advice.
Sources of iron:
Egg, tuna, chicken, turkey, beef, white fish, liver, fortified breakfast cereals, beans, lentils, whole-meal bread, nuts, green leafy vegetables, dried apricots.