Iron is a mineral you get from the food you eat. Your body needs iron to work well. If you eat a varied and balanced diet you should be able to get all the iron you need.
Key points about iron
- Iron is used for body functions including your red blood cells carrying oxygen around your body, for proteins in your muscles and for your immune system.
- Your body needs the right amount of iron – too much or not enough can cause health problems.
- If you eat a varied and balanced diet most people should be able to get enough iron.
- Symptoms of not getting enough iron include feeling tired, finding it hard to think and concentrate and getting more infections and illnesses.
- If you have these symptoms talk to your doctor. They may recommend an iron supplement.
Your body needs the right amount of iron
Having not enough or too much iron in your body can create problems with your health.
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.
Iron overload or haemochromatosis occurs when too much iron builds up in your body. Most people who get this condition have a genetic disorder passed down through families that leads to problems controlling iron absorption and iron levels.
Who is at risk of not getting enough iron?
Your iron needs change over your lifetime, and not getting enough is common.
People at risk of iron deficiency are:
- infants, children and teenagers, because they grow quickly
- teenage girls and adult women due to blood loss through monthly periods
- pregnant women, due to increased iron requirements
- athletes and very active people, as they often have higher iron loss from strenuous exercise and changed eating patterns
- vegetarians or vegans, because they may not eat enough iron-containing foods
- people who have conditions that affect their gut absorbing enough iron from foods they eat, such as those with coeliac disease.
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 over 50 years||8mg|
|Adult females during pregnancy||27mg|
|Breastfeeding aged 14–18 years||10mg|
|Breastfeeding aged over 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 2 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 and lamb (the redder the meat, the more iron there is in it)
- chicken, fish and seafood.
Other foods with iron are:
- grains: porridge, oatmeal, iron-fortified breakfast cereals (eg, 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, you should 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 red 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 before drinking them.
If you have signs of low iron talk to your doctor about iron supplementation.
If you need 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 need higher doses under the supervision of your doctor. Very high doses of iron can be very dangerous for children. Keep all iron supplements out of the reach of children. Read more about iron supplements.
Iron Nutrition Foundation, NZ
Iron and breastfeeding Ministry of Health, NZ
Eating for healthy pregnant women Ministry of Health & Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2013
Eating for healthy vegetarians Ministry of Health, NZ, 2012