So for this blog post, i’m not talking about the good old iron that we get out every once in a while to iron our clothes with, I’m talking about the important dietary mineral Iron (Fe).
So what does iron do in the body?
Iron is an essential mineral stored in haemoglobin (Hb) which is found in red blood cells. It plays a role in many of bodily functions including the transport of oxygen in the blood and the delivery of oxygen to muscle tissue. This is important in providing the body energy for daily living.
So what does this mean for us?
When your body does not have enough iron – usually by not eating enough in food, the levels of haemoglobin in your blood become low. When this gets too low the body moves into a in a state of “anaemia”. Symptoms of this include being very tired, sleeping a lot, having poor concentration and increasing your risk of infection (getting sick easily).
So how do I eat more iron from my diet?
Before I answer this question it is important to explain the two different types of iron that we find in food.
Haem iron – this is found in animal foods (high amounts in kangaroo, beef, lamb as well as chicken, pork, fish)
Non-haem iron – this is mostly found in plant foods (dried fruit, nuts, tofu, legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas, baked beans, green leafy vegetables – spinach, broccoli, bok choy, kale, fortified cereals/breads)
Haem iron is absorbed 10 times better than non-haem iron by the body and there are also multiple factors that affect its absorption (see below). This is why it is extremely important for people following vegan or vegetarian diets to pay particular attention to not only what types of foods they are consuming, but also, what foods they are consuming with iron-rich foods.
What blocks iron absorption?
There are various things that can prevent the absorption of iron by the body. The main foods that prevent absorption include calcium tablets, tea, coffee and unprocessed bran1,2. To overcome these issues, aim to avoid consuming these foods when eating iron-rich foods. As a general rule of thumb, wait an hour after (or before) an iron rich meal before consuming tea or coffee.
How much iron do I need?
Men (19-50 years old): 8mg/day
Women (19-50 years old) = 18mg/day
Women (51 years+) = 8mg/day
How much Iron is in foods?
Here are a few summary tables to give you a few tips on how much iron is contained within different foods
What to do if you think your iron is low
Consult your doctor, they can give you a script to allow you to have a blood test done which can check various things include your iron levels. Your doctor can also refer you to see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian who can give you individualised information and tips on how to increase the iron in your diet. To book an appointment with PLANT's Accredited Practising Dietitian Kiah Paetz, click here.
Should I take iron supplements?
Only after visiting your local GP and have had blood test results confirming low iron levels should iron tables be considered an option. However, it should be highlighted that constipation is a side effect from taking iron tables. This can be managed by consuming fibre rich, plant based foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes, drinking water and exercising.
So in summary what should I be eating to consume enough iron?
For vegetarians/vegans – for breakfast try consume foods that are either naturally rich in iron or iron fortified breakfast cereals/breads. Focus on foods such as legumes (kidney beans, chickpeas), green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli) and nuts. Combine these with a piece of fruit or orange juice to maximise absorption and make sure to avoid having coffee,tea or dairy/calcium containing drink with your meal.
For omnivores – consume a variety of the vegetables, fruits and nuts listed above but also include eggs, a variety of meats and meat alternatives and aim to have 65 grams of lean, red meat once a week3. Focus on combining rich sources of non-haem iron with haem iron as this will further increase the uptake of iron by the body. As stated above, make sure to avoid having coffee, teas and other dairy containing drinks with meals, but this is okay between meals.