Living a healthy lifestyle means focusing on exercise, drinking lots of water, and eating food that contains iron, vitamins, and other nutrients. Iron is an element that is extremely important for our everyday life, so it should never be missed in a meal. What are the best sources of iron and how do we make sure we eat enough of it?
What is iron and why do I need it?
Iron is one of the most important nutrients that we need in our everyday life. It is a necessary part of many functions of the human organism. Iron transports oxygen around the body and is a component of haemoglobin in red blood cells.
More importantly, iron helps our bodies produce energy by storing oxygen in our muscles, and ensures optimal immune function.
Our body can store iron, however, it can’t produce it. That’s why the only way you can get this important nutrient is by eating foods that are high in iron.
How much iron do I need?
How much iron you need depends on your age and sex. An adult man will need a different amount of iron compared to a pregnant woman or a child.
To find out how much iron you need, you can follow the recommendations of Nutrient Reference Values set by joint initiative of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing and the New Zealand Ministry of Health (NZ MoH).
Nutrient Reference Values divides the recommended daily intakes of iron by gender and age.
Babies age 0-6 months need 0.2 mg/day. This amount relates to infants that are breast-fed. The iron in formula milk is less bioavailable which means that the intake of formula-fed babies will need to be higher.
Infants 7-12 months old are recommended 11mg of iron intake a day. However, if the baby is given only vegetarian meals, then the recommended intake will need to be a bit higher.
Until children reach teenage years, the recommended intake of iron is the same for both boys and girls. Children 1-3 years old will need around 9mg/day and 4-8 years old 10mg/day. Kids 9-13 years old will need 8mg/day.
Teenagers. As a result of adolescence, the recommended iron intake is higher for teenage girls (15mg/day) than it is for boys (11mg/day).
Men need 8mg of iron a day and women need around 18mg per day. Higher iron requirements for women is a result of the loss of blood every month. The recommended iron intake increases when a woman gets pregnant, and then she needs around 27mg of iron per day. The bigger need of food with iron for teenage girls and women means that they have a higher risk of iron deficiency, and therefore they should focus more on eating food high in iron everyday.
Graphic provided by Health Direct.
You can find more details regarding the recommended daily intake of iron on Nutrient Reference Values.
Types of products rich in iron
We can find two types of iron depending on the food we consume.
- Animal-based iron – Haem iron. This type of iron is only found in meat products, fish and poultry. Our bodies can absorb animal-based iron much easier than iron from plants. When we eat foods that contain haem iron, our bodies can take in up to 30% of its content. So meat eaters are less likely to suffer from iron deficiency than vegetarians and vegans.
Haem iron can also be found in eggs. However, eggs also contain phosphoprotein which can reduce iron absorption.
- Plant-based iron – Non-haem iron. Nuts, fruit and vegetables contain non-haem iron. This type of iron isn’t as easily absorbed as the one from meat products. When eating food with non-haem iron, our bodies only take in only 2-10% of the consumed iron.
However, studies have shown that when we change our diet to vegan or vegetarian, our body adjusts and over time can absorb non-haem iron easier.
Here’s what’s interesting, meat contains both types of iron: around 40-45% haem and 55-60% non-haem, while plants contain 100% non-haem iron.
Top 10 iron rich foods
When planning meals for our family, we need to make sure we choose products that are a great source of iron. Luckily, there are plenty of foods high in iron that are available for both meat eaters and vegetarians/vegans. Check out our list of the top 10 food choices to boost your iron levels.
Meat is a great source of haem iron, which is easier absorbed by our body. According to Nutrition Australia, beef is the choice of meat with the highest iron content (3.5mg in 100g) followed by kangaroo (3.2mg in 100g). Lamb has slightly less iron (2.5mg in 100g) and pork has only 0.8mg in 100g.
Organ meats like liver are very rich in iron, with over quarter of the recommended daily intake for an adult woman. Chicken liver is one of the most popular options and it contains a 9mg of iron in 100g. The highest amount of iron is in pork liver – 13mg of iron in 100g, which is over 70% of a daily recommended intake for women. 100g of beef liver contains around 5mg of iron, while lamb liver will have 2.5mg of iron in a 100g portion.
However, we have to remember not to rely only on eating liver since it’s also rich in vitamin A which can be harmful in higher doses, especially for pregnant women. Liver is also high in cholesterol. If you choose to eat liver, limit it to no more than 75g per week.
If you love seafood, don’t hesitate to order some shellfish. Oysters and mussels are high in iron, with around 3.9mg in 100g of the product. Shellfish are also loaded with other nutrients like protein, vitamins and zinc.
Beans, lentils and chickpeas are a great source of iron. They are hearty, filling and full of nutrients. If you are looking for vegetarian food with iron, make sure you add legumes to your diet. Just one cup of lentils or chickpeas contains 6.59 mg of iron. Even better, they’re also rich in vitamin B, magnesium and zinc.
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and beet greens are a must on the list of iron-high foods. The best source of iron from this group is spinach, which contains 2.7mg of iron in 100grams. But we also need to remember that spinach has high levels of oxalic acid, which can block the body’s absorption of iron. Cooking spinach reduces the amount of oxalic acid.
This is one of our favourite iron rich foods. Not only can dark chocolate boost your iron levels, but it’ll also lift your spirits! 100g of dark chocolate contains 7mg of iron, and it’s also full of antioxidants that help to protect your nerves, boost immunity, and put you in a good mood. However, as much as we love chocolate, we shouldn’t eat too much of it as it’s also rich in calories.
Peanuts, pistachios, almonds, walnuts or cashews – perfect snacks and a great addition to our cakes, sauces and salads. Nuts are a significant source of protein, vitamins, calcium and magnesium. They’re also rich in iron! Pistachios have the most iron content with 14mg per 100g, which is nearly 4 times more than almonds or cashews.
This is the best iron food choice for vegetarians and vegans as it can replace meat in many meals. Tofu is full of protein, calcium and iron and 100g of tofu contains 2.96mg of iron. Tofu is also a great antioxidant, and lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease
This amazing grain is a great gluten free option full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. In 100g of quinoa we can find 2.8g of iron. It is a great addition to salads, and good substitute for rice.
These small seeds are full of great things for our body. Eating only a small amount of pumpkin seeds can provide a substantial quantity of magnesium, zinc, healthy fats and iron. In 100g of pumpkin seeds we will find around 3.3g of iron. They’re also packed with antioxidants that help to reduce inflammation and protect against disease. Pumpkin seeds aren’t just a tasty snack but they’re also great in salads!
How to improve iron absorption from food?
Remember that only a part of the iron you consume is absorbed by your body, even when you’re eating foods high in iron. However, there are ways you can improve your body’s absorption of iron.
- According to Nutrition Australia, you should combine iron rich foods with products high in vitamin C (e.g. parsley, red pepper, kale, broccoli or currant). It’s said that combining these nutrients helps with iron absorption.
- If you’re cooking a vegetarian meal, you’re better off cooking your veggies as it increases the amount of available iron in your meal.
- Try to avoid drinking coffee and tea during or directly after having food with iron. The tannins and caffeine content can reduce iron absorption.
- If you’re looking to boost iron levels, then avoid calcium rich products as this can also limit the absorption of iron by our bodies.
Can you have too much iron?
As mentioned above, iron is a great nutrient that is needed for a healthy lifestyle. That said, taking in excess amounts of iron can be harmful. Even a mild overdose of iron can increase the risk of liver disease, heart failure, and osteoporosis. Early symptoms of iron poisoning can include stomach pain, nausea and vomiting.
Excess levels of iron are usually caused by an overdose of iron supplements. When the iron levels are too high, the body struggles to dispose of the extra amounts. The most effective way to get rid of it is through blood loss. That’s why blood donors and women who menstruate are less likely to have excess iron in their system.
What if I don’t have enough iron, and what are the symptoms?
High risk groups for iron deficiency include children, teenage girls, menstruating women, lactating women, and female athletes.
The main cause of iron deficiency is not eating enough iron rich foods. This problem can often happen to vegetarians who don’t plan their diet correctly, as the non-haem iron absorption is lower than animal-based haem iron. Pregnant women are also at higher risk since they have an increased need for iron and deficiency can happen faster.
If we don’t have enough iron in our blood, we can feel tired and our immunity will be very low. Prolonged iron deficiency can cause anaemia.
According to Better Health Australia, symptoms of low iron include looking very pale, breathlessness, dizziness and fatigue. People with iron deficiency anaemia may also have reduced immune function, making them more vulnerable to infection. In children, iron deficiency anaemia can affect growth and brain development.
High iron types of products for vegans and vegetarians
When choosing a vegetarian and vegan diet, we need to make sure that we eat enough foods that contain iron and other nutrients usually found in meat. There are plenty of vegetarian sources of iron, however plant-based iron (non-haem) isn’t as easily absorbed as that which comes from animal products. So it’s recommended that you find a balanced diet. How can you maximise your absorption of non-haem iron? Try not to pair your meals with any dairy products, as dairy lowers iron absorption levels. And as mentioned before, pair iron rich veggies with food that contains vitamin C to help increase the absorption of iron.
The best way to boost your iron levels if you’re vegetarian or vegan is by snacking on iron rich nuts and seeds, adding beans or lentils to your soups or salads and cooking some tofu with your veggies.
Iron rich foods for different age groups
In each stage of our life, our body needs a different daily intake of iron. How do we implement iron into a diet for each age group, according to their different needs? Check out some of our ideas.
Iron rich foods for babies
At the beginning of our life we get all our needed nutrients from breast milk. At around 6 months, babies need the addition of solid foods in their diet. Baby cereals and mashed vegetables are good first foods that contain iron. Meat or fish can also be added to the mashed vegetables or rice cereal for even more iron intake. Try to choose lean meat, and you can trim the fat as only the lean meat contains iron. Babies can also eat baked beans and green leafy vegetables. You can find more about iron rich foods for babies on the website for the Department of Health of the Queensland Government.
Iron rich foods for children
Children need iron rich foods to make sure they get plenty of energy and the right amount of nutrients to help them grow. When preparing the meals for our children, we need to remember to include food sources of iron in their diet.
Iron rich foods for teenagers
Teenagers like to have their own choices when it comes to their meals and what they prefer to eat. That’s why the right education is very important at this stage. We need to talk to our children about the importance of iron and encourage them to eat foods that are high in iron. If your teenager wants to avoid red meat or be vegetarian, Better Health recommends offering them good iron rich food sources like beans, lentils, peas, broccoli, spinach, beans, fortified cereals, breads and whole grains.
Iron rich foods for adults
We as adults have full freedom when it comes to how we and our kids eat. When planning our daily meals, we should always focus on food that’s full of nutrients and make sure we consume enough iron everyday. Women also need to remember that they require much more iron than men. A good way to boost some iron during the day is by snacking on some nuts or seeds.
A balanced diet is extremely important for us and our family. When preparing meals, we need to make sure that they provide enough nutrients for our body and are rich in iron. If you’re not sure if your meal plan is healthy enough, it’s a good idea to visit a GP or dietician to get some recommendations on meals and choices of food high with iron.