10 tips to improve your iron intake

This year World Iron Awareness Week is celebrated during the week of 13 April. Here’s why iron is important for you, and how to include more of it in your diet.

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Iron deficiency is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The public health body estimates that over 30% or 2 billion of the world’s population are anaemic, many due to iron deficiencies.

Why do we need iron?

Iron is essential for good health and wellbeing. It helps carry oxygen to the brain and muscles, keeping us physically and mentally strong, and helps us produce energy and fight infections.

Who needs iron?

There are certain times when iron is particularly important. People who have higher iron needs include:

  • Infants, children and teenagers, because they grow so quickly.
  • Pregnant women need more iron because of increased blood levels and to build baby’s iron stores.
  • Menstruating women.
  • Athletes and very active people.
  • People on restricted fad diets.

Signs of iron deficiency

  • Feeling tired or lethargic
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling more irritable or grumpy than usual
  • Developmental delays and learning difficulties
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Impaired immunity (if you suffer from frequent infections)
  • Reduced appetite

Long-term iron deficiency leads to anaemia with more severe symptoms.

10 Tips to improve your iron intake

  1. Include more lean meat in your diet for top iron intake. There are two types of iron in food: haem iron (found in meat and fish) and non-haem iron (found mainly in plants). Meat also contains some non-haem iron, but your body absorbs the haem iron in meat more efficiently than the non-haem iron in plant foods.
  2. Eat lean beef and lamb 3 to 4 times per week for top iron intake. Red meats are richer in haem iron than white meat, poultry and fish.
  3. Include plenty of fruit and vegetables rich in vitamin C with your meals.
  4. Eat red meat and vegetables together. Eating meat with plant foods will help your body use up to four times more of the non-haem iron.
  5. Keep your meals tannin free. Rather have your tea and coffee before meals, as the tannin in tea and coffee reduces the amount of iron you can use from food.
  6. Avoid strict dieting. Studies have shown that women on low calorie diets don’t get their daily iron requirements. Lean beef and lamb are relatively low in calories but high in iron and can be included in any weight-reducing diet.
  7. You need extra iron if you follow a strenuous exercise routine. Have your iron levels checked regularly and include a variety of foods in your diet, including foods high in haem-iron.
  8. Don’t rely on supplements. Iron pills or supplements and fortified foods such as breakfast cereal are poorly absorbed.
  9. Choose your foods from the four main food groups. You should eat a variety of foods from the main food groups: breads and cereals, fruit and vegetables, dairy products and red meat, fish, chicken or a protein alternative such as beans, lentils, eggs or tofu.
  10. Be extra iron smart if you’re at risk.
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