Iron is an important dietary mineral that our body needs to work well. The body needs iron for our red blood cells to carry oxygen around our bodies and for proteins in our muscles. Iron is also needed for many other roles including our immune system.
Your body needs the right amount of iron
Low iron or iron deficiency anaemia is a common problem in New Zealand. If you do not have enough iron in your body you may:
- feel tired
- find it hard to think and concentrate
- find it harder to learn
- be more at risk of infections and illnesses
- feel the cold more than others.
Haemochromatosis occurs when too much iron builds up in the body. If undetected, high levels of iron are toxic to the body organs such as the liver, pancreas and heart. About 1 in 200 New Zealanders are affected by haemochromatosis.
Who needs iron?
Iron is important for everyone. Our need for iron differs over our lifetime and not getting enough is common. People at risk of iron deficiency are:
- Infants, children and teenagers, as they grow quickly.
- Teenage girls and adult women due to monthly blood loss.
- Pregnant women, as their iron requirements increase considerably with the growing foetus.
- Athletes and very active people as they often have higher losses, e.g. from strenuous exercise, and altered food intake.
- Vegetarians or vegans, as they may not eat sufficient iron-containing foods.
- People who have a problem with their gut not absorbing enough iron from foods they eat.
How much iron do I need?
The recommended daily intake for iron varies by age and gender.
|14-18 years boys||11mg|
|14-18 years girls||15mg|
|Adult females 19-50 years||18mg|
|Adult females <50 years||8mg|
|Adult females pregnancy||27mg|
|Breastfeeding 14-18 years||10mg|
|Breastfeeding <18 years||9mg|
Source: NZ Nutrition Foundation's Iron page
Where can I get iron?
If you eat a varied and balanced diet you should be able to get all the iron you need. There are two forms of iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found only in animal foods and non-haem is found in both plant and animal foods.
Your body absorbs haem iron from animal foods more easily than non-haem.
The best food sources of iron are:
- beef & lamb (the redder the meat, the more iron there is in it)
- chicken, fish & seafood.
Other foods with iron are:
- grains: porridge, oatmeal, iron-fortified breakfast cereals (ie, Weetbix) and wholegrain breads
- vegetables: greens (spinach, silverbeet, lettuce), beans and peas, pumpkin and sweet potatoes
- chickpeas, beans, lentils
- some nuts.
Tips for increasing iron absorption
Vitamin C can increase the absorption of non-haem iron. So, when you eat plant foods that contain iron also eat foods high in vitamin C, like kiwifruit, citrus fruit, tomatoes and broccoli.
If you have low iron levels, do not drink tea, coffee or wine with your meal. The tannin in these drinks binds to the iron in the foods you are eating, so less can be absorbed and used by your body. Wait at least one hour after eating.
If your iron levels are below the normal range talk to your doctor about iron supplementation.
If you require iron supplements do not take too much as it can be harmful. Taking too much iron in the form of supplements may lead to:
- stomach pain.
Taking 20mg or less a day of iron supplement is unlikely to cause harm. Some people may require higher doses under the supervision of their doctor. Very high doses of iron can be very dangerous for children. Keep all iron supplements out of the reach of children.
Iron Nutrition Foundation NZ
Iron and breastfeeding Ministry of Health, NZ
Eating for healthy pregnant women Ministry of Health NZ & Health Promotion Agency, 2013
Eating for healthy vegetarians Ministry of Health NZ, 2012