Iron – am I getting enough in my diet?

Iron is a mineral which is an essential component of many of the proteins and enzymes that maintain good health in our bodies. It is involved in transporting oxygen to the body’s tissues and muscles and gives the red colour to our blood.

Iron deficiency Facts

Iron deficiency is caused by a diet low in iron or by blood loss e.g. in menstruation or illness. Deficiency is really common in the particular population groups of toddlers and teenage girls in the UK due to their high rates of growth and variable diets. Other people at risk of iron deficiency are:

  • pregnant women
  • premature and low birth weight babies
  • people with kidney failure
  • people with gastrointestinal disorders that affect their ability to absorb iron
  • long distance runners and other athletes who do regular intense exercise

Signs of iron deficiency include – feeling tired and weak, pale skin, breathlessness, decreased work and school performance, increased susceptibility to infections and decreased appetite.

If you think you might be iron deficient, ask your GP to do a blood test.

Our daily requirements for iron change with age and differ in men and women

According to government experts, these are our requirements:

  • 6- to 12-month-olds – 7.8mg (8 stars)
  • 1 to 3-year-olds – 6.9mg (7 stars)
  • 4 to 6-year-olds – 6.1 mg (6 stars)
  • 7 to 10-year-olds – 8.7mg (9 stars)
  • 11 to 18-year-old boys – 11.3mg (11 stars)
  • 11 to 18-year-old girls – 14.8mg (15 stars)
  • 19 to 50-year-old women – 14.8mg (15 stars)
  • 19 to 50-year-old men – 8.7mg (9 stars)
  • Adults older than 50 years – 8.7mg (9 stars)
  • Pregnant women – 14.8mg (15 stars)

NB – The stars can be used to count up how much iron from food you have a day in the table below – 1 star is approximately 1mg of iron.

SOURCES OF IRON IN OUR DIET

Iron is found both in foods that come from animals – meat, fish and eggs; and in plant foods such as green leafy vegetables, lentils, beans, dried fruit, nuts and seeds. White bread and breakfast cereals in the UK have iron added to them, and so are also good sources of iron. Iron from animal foods (haem iron) is absorbed by our stomachs more efficiently than that from plant foods (non-haem iron).

Newborns get an easily absorbed form of iron from breast milk, which is usually enough for the first 6 months of life. Infant formula contains iron too. Cow’s milk is very low in iron so is not a recommended drink in the first year of life.

Eating a varied and balanced diet based on the Eatwell Plate should ensure you get sufficient iron in your diet. The ready reckoner below can help you to ensure you are including some iron rich foods every day. Note that liver is not recommended during pregnancy due to high vitamin A levels

Iron Ready Reckoner:

Food Iron stars (1 star = 1mg – approximately)
Animal sources
Liver (chicken),2 slices (70g) 8
Liver (lamb), 2 slices (80g) 6
Liver pate, 1 serving (50g) 3
Kidney (lamb),1 kidney (35g) 4
Beef / lamb (roast), 3 oz (80g) 2
Pork / chicken (roast), 3oz (80g) 1
Black pudding, 1 portion 9
Corned beef, thick slice (50g) 1
Sardines, small tin (100g) 3
Pilchards, canned in tomato sauce (55g) 2
Herring, 1 medium fillet (120g) 2
Tuna, small can (100g) 1
Prawns, average portion (60g) 1
Mussels, average portion (40g) 3
Egg (boiled),1 average (50g) 1
Plant sources
Spinach, boiled (120g) 2
Fenugreek (methi) (25g) 4
Watercress, 1 bunch (80g) 2
Broccoli / peas, 2-3 tablespoons (80g) 1
6 Apricots or 3 Figs, dried (60g) 2
Raisins/ sultanas, 1 tablespoon (30g) 1
Bread, wholemeal, 2 slices 2
Bread, white, 2 slices 1
Bran flakes, 3 tablespoons (25g) 4
Fortified cereals, 3 tablespoons (25g) e.g. special K, cheerios, weetabix (2 biscuits) 3
Lentils (dahl), green/brown (100g) 3
Blackeyed/ kidney beans chickpeas (boiled), 4 tablespoons (100g) 2
Baked beans, Small can (200g) 3
Hoummus, 2 tablespoons (50g) 1
Tofu, fried (50g) 2
Nuts e.g. almonds, cashew, brazils (25g) 1
Seeds e.g. melon, pumpkin, sesame (30g) 2
Curry powder, 1 teaspoon (3g) 3
Plain chocolate, 1 bar (50g) 1

Foods rich in vitamin C increase the absorption of iron from plant foods:

Foods rich in vitamin C are oranges, lemons, grapefruits and limes; blackcurrants and strawberries; Kiwi fruit, mango, papaya and guava; fruit juices, or fruit drinks fortified with vitamin C; and fresh or frozen vegetables, eaten raw or lightly cooked. To maximise your iron absorption, drink fruit juice, or eat fruit or vegetables with meals that contain plant sources of iron.

Other foods decrease the amount of iron we absorb from plant foods:

  • Tannins: in tea or coffee – so avoid drinking with meals
  • Fibre: in high quantities – avoid unprocessed bran
  • Calcium: in high quantities – so avoid taking calcium supplements with meals

Should I be taking iron supplements?

Your doctor or dietitian will advise you if you do need to take iron supplements. It’s not wise to take iron supplements if you don’t have a medical need for them.

Links for more information:

Acknowledgements:

Some of this information was adapted from a diet sheet produced by dietitians at Ealing NHS PCT in 2004 with permission and thanks.

Iron content of foods sourced from the government publication McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods integrated dataset, 2002

Daily requirements sourced from the government publication Dietary Reference Values of Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom, published in 1991.