Let's Talk About Iron
Tired of feeling tired? Feeling lethargic? Well, there may be a reason for that.
You may not be getting enough iron from your diet!
1 in 8 Australians above the age of 2 are not meeting their daily iron requirements
So, let’s start with the basics.
What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that our body needs for growth and development.
There are two types of iron that comes from our food, haem and non-haem iron.
Haem iron, which comes from our animal foods and is readily absorbed and non-haem iron, which comes from our plant foods as well as egg, and is not as readily
absorbed, however this can be improved.
What does iron do?
It does a lot for us, so we should be mindful of how important it is that we meet the
For the most part, it creates our red blood cells, transports our oxygen throughout our
body, supports our immune system, cognitive function and our hormone production.
How much do we need?
Iron is one of the minerals that most people (mainly women) know that they need to be
getting a lot of, though often people don’t realise how much is actually needed to keep our body going or how much iron is in our “iron-rich” foods.
The Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for iron:
Men (19-50y): 8mg/day
Women (19-50y): 18mg/day
Women (during pregnancy): 27mg/day
Women (50+): 8mg/day
Women need more than double the amount of iron that men require.
This is because women lose blood during menstruation, so there is a need need to replenish the iron that is lost each month!
Note: the requirements above increase a substantial amount for pregnant women, vegans and vegetarians, as well as varying with different levels of activity and health conditions.
So where can you get your iron from?
Since iron deficiency is fairly common in Australia, some of your everyday foods have
iron added to them! This is also known as fortification.
Some Aussie favourites that have been fortified include:
Milo drink (18mg/100g)
All-bran cereal (10mg/100g)
Other foods are just naturally high in iron. Again, we do need to be mindful when
consuming plant-based iron sources such as tofu as the iron is not as well absorbed.
Other sources that are high in iron:
Spinach (1.75mg/100g raw)
Dried Apricots (3.1/100g)
How can we improve iron absorption?
Vitamin C has been well-researched to be a great enhancer of iron absorption.
Adding sources of Vitamin C to your iron will increase the absorption i.e. adding
lemon to your spinach/salad greens, adding capsicum to a tofu-stir fry, adding kiwi fruit or strawberries to your iron-fortified breakfast cereals.
Cooking your plant foods can improve the availability of iron!
Eat your haem-iron and non-haem iron sources together! Add some kidney beans
to your chilli con carne for example.
What can inhibit the absorption of iron?
Drink your tea, coffee or wine at least 30 minutes before/after
your meal. They contain polyphenols called tannins that like to take the iron away!
There’s no need to cut these out, just leave some time before or after your meal for
those beverages we all love.
Calcium can be a tricky one, we need it for growth and development, but iron and
calcium are absorbed through the same pathway, so they like to compete with
another. Again, don’t cut these foods out or avoid putting butter on your bread, but it
may be useful to space the consumption of the two out so that iron can have a little
head start, particularly if taking as a supplement.
Check if your medications or supplements, like calcium and zinc supplements, can interfere with absorption! These would just need to be taken away from those iron-rich meals, or iron supplements.
Got the gist?
Hopefully this was able to debunk a few myths and help you understand how you might be able to meet the iron requirements a little easier!
This article was co-written with Julia Yang, a Masters of Dietetics Student. Thanks for your help, Julia!