Iron: An Essential Mineral

What is iron?

Iron is a very important mineral used in the body for various functions, including blood production. However, iron deficiency is one of the main nutritional deficiencies in the world, with around 80% of people being iron deficient [1]. Some good sources of iron are red meat, liver, kidney beans and nuts. 

Why do we need iron?

Iron has a number of functions in the body. It aids growth and development, helps to maintain energy levels and helps to transport oxygen around our bodies and to our muscles. Most of the iron in our bodies is found in our red blood cells, known as haemoglobin, and in our muscle cells, known as myoglobin. Haemoglobin transports oxygen from our lungs to cells in our body through the blood. Myoglobin stores, transports, and releases oxygen in our muscle cells. 

A lack of iron in your diet can cause iron deficiency anaemia. This condition can cause tiredness, a lack of energy, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and pale skin. If you suffer from iron deficiency anaemia over a long period of time you may be more at risk of illness and infection, developing heart or lung complications and experiencing complications before and after birth, in pregnancy [2]. Women are often more at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia due to the loss of blood through menstruation, as well as pregnant women who require more iron during pregnancy. Vegetarians may also be at greater risk if they don’t consume iron-rich foods, as meat is one of the main sources of iron. However, there are several vegetarian iron sources, such as tofu, beans, peas, lentils, seeds, nuts and green leafy vegetables.

How should iron be incorporated into the diet?

The recommended intake of iron that you should consume vary. For men over 18 and women over 50, the recommended value is 8.7mg a day. For women aged between 19 and 50, the recommended value is 14.8mg a day [3]. These values can be met by consuming a healthy, balanced diet but iron supplements may be recommended to women who lose a lot of blood during menstruation. Too much iron can cause constipation, nausea and stomach pain so it is important to only take supplements if advised to do so.

There are a number of ways you can help your body to absorb more iron from the food that you eat, to help you meet your iron intake requirements:

  1. Eat foods rich in vitamin C, like oranges, peppers, broccoli and strawberries, alongside high-iron foods.
  2. Eat foods containing like oranges, peppers, broccoli and strawberries, alongside high-iron foods.
  3. Phytate containing foods, such as cereals, potatoes and pine nuts, may decrease iron absorption.  Therefore, consuming Vitamin C rich foods can help to counteract this effect.
  4. Leave a few hours between drinking tea or coffee and eating an iron-rich meal as polyphenols, found in tea and coffee, can inhibit iron absorption.

Top tips for iron:

  1. If you don’t eat meat, try eating other iron-rich foods, such as tofu, lentils, kidney beans and spinach. 
  2. Eat foods high in vitamin C, vitamin A and beta-carotene to boost iron absorption from food.
  3. Vitamin C containing foods can help to counteract the effects of phytate containing foods which may decrease iron absorption.
  4. If you drink tea or coffee, wait a few hours before eating an iron-rich meal to stop decreased iron absorption.
  5. Snack on nuts and dried fruits, both good sources of iron.

[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/iron-deficiency-inadequate-dietary-iron 

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/iron-deficiency-anaemia/ 

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/iron/ 

Written by Libby Grimshaw (nutrition intern) and reviewed by Caroline Hill (dietitian)

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