Iron: an essential part of a healthy diet

Iron is a dietary mineral vital for maintaining general well being. Without it, the human body can’t make haemoglobin, a protein which transports oxygen around the body to provide energy5. According to the Gastroenterological Society of Australia (GESA), failing to absorb iron each day can deplete the body’s stores which can lead to iron deficiency2 – one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world2.

Although the average person needs to absorb just a small amount of iron each day to stay healthy - around 1 mg for adult males and 1.5 mg for adult women5 - to achieve this we need to consume several times that amount because our bodies absorb only a fraction of the iron contained in the foods we eat5. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for menstruating women aged 19-50 is 18 mg per day and 27 mg for pregnant women2. For adult males and for women over 50 the RDA is 8 mg of iron per day2.

...the average person needs to absorb just a small amount of iron each day to stay healthy - around 1 mg for adult males and 1.5 mg for adult women.

While people assume that red meat is the best source of iron, there are many iron rich foods and also some simple tips can help to boost your intake. There are two types of iron, haem iron found in beef, lamb, chicken and fish5, and non-haem iron from plant-based foods including beans, lentils and nuts5.

For non-meat eaters, cooking often increases the amount of available iron in vegetables. For example, the body absorbs 30 per cent of the iron from cooked broccoli compared to 6 percent from raw broccoli5.

As every person’s uptake of iron differs, there are ways to improve this by eating or avoiding certain foods. For example, consuming Vitamic C together with an iron-rich meal, and avoiding iron inhibitors like tea, coffee and high calcium foods during and right after eating can help increase iron absorption5.

If you’re juggling a busy lifestyle, and you’re unable to maintain a balanced diet, your iron levels may be lower than recommended – speak to your doctor about checking your iron levels. A simple blood test can determine if you’re iron deficient and your GP may recommend an iron supplement to treat it2. If not treated early, iron deficiency can affect every day quality of life2.

Favour a vegetarian diet and want to be sure you’re getting enough iron? Visit the website for next month’s article on plant based sources of iron.