popeye-and-spinachWhy We Need Iron and How the Body Uses It

According to the World Health Organization up to 80 percent of the world's population is iron-deficient. Given that iron is one of the most abundant nutrients in the body and is vital for maintaining the strength of your immune system, preserving your muscles and regulating cell growth, you need to question whether you are getting enough and if you aren't, act quickly to do something about it.

We store iron in our body in haemoglobin and myoglobin (the red blood cell proteins that transport oxygen around the body to our tissues and muscles), and iron is what gives our blood its bright red colour. Scientists have identified two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is contained in animal products such as beef, chicken or fish. Non-heme iron is plant-based, and is found in beans, lentils and spices.

If your supply of iron is low, you won't be transporting enough oxygen around the body and you will find yourself feeling tired even if you are getting enough sleep. An iron deficiency can result in anaemia, which is serious and can lead to decreased immune function.

Are you at Risk of Iron Deficiency?

People particularly at risk of developing an iron shortage include women who menstruate heavily and women who are pregnant. Vegetarians are also an at-risk group because iron is more readily-absorbed via meat than plant sources. Vegan women may require twice as much iron per day than non-vegetarians.

Individuals who suffer with digestive diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn's or irritable bowel syndrome are also at greater risk of iron deficiency as they do not absorb very much of the nutrient. It is also possible for blood loss – from an operation or an accident for example - to result in a loss of iron.

Natural Food Sources of Iron

Popeye knew that spinach was a great natural source of non-heme iron that would help keep him in peak condition. Heme iron can be found in lean red meat, turkey and chicken, liver, oysters, mackerel, tuna and other oily fish (even frozen or canned) and eggs.

Non-heme iron can be found in spinach, soybeans, breakfast cereals, baked beans, chick peas and lentils, nuts, pulses and seeds, brown rice and tofu. Bread, particularly wholemeal brown bread, is a good source of fibre and iron, as are leafy green vegetables including kale, broccoli and watercress. Dried fruits, in particular dried apricots, raisins and prunes will also provide a source of iron.

How Much Iron do Men and Women Require Each Day?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for iron varies by gender and age group. Women aged 19 to 50 need 18 milligrams of iron daily. Remember that heavy periods and celiac disease can affect how much iron you need so consult your doctor if either scenario applies to you. Men aged 19 and older require 8 mg per day.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency will develop slowly over time. The signs and symptoms to watch out for include:

  • A feeling of weakness or fatigue
  • Decreases in the level of concentration
  • Increase in number of headaches
  • Hair loss
  • Brittle, chipping nails


Most people should be able to get all the iron they need by eating a varied and balanced diet and should not need to take iron supplements or iron tablets. If you have any doubt you should always check with your doctor. If you're not vegetarian, the fastest way to get your daily dose of iron is - of course - to eat meat. For those that can't eat meat or don't eat meat there are some useful supplementary ideas to try out.

  • Add vitamin C to your meal because it can increase your iron intake by 50%. Eat fresh vegetables with each meal or finish off with an orange.
  • Eat iron fortified foods (check out your breakfast cereal or loaf of bread)
  • Don't mix iron and calcium (found in milk and dairy) as they inhibit iron absorption.
  • Cook with cast iron. Iron pots or pans will increase the amount of iron you get in your food.
  • Avoid tea with your meal. Research suggests that caffeine reduces the absorption of iron from foods, so only drink tea between meals.

Iron and Pregnancy

For women who are pregnant it is especially important that they eat a well-balanced and varied diet. Pregnant women need up to 27 milligrams of iron daily although this drops to 9-10 milligrams once they are breastfeeding.

A final note worth remembering – while it is well known that liver is rich in iron, it is NOT recommended for pregnant women because of its high Vitamin A content, so avoid consuming liver or liver products such as pate and protein shakes. Take advice from your health visitor or doctor.

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