Improving Iron intake

What is iron?

Iron is an essential mineral found in two forms: haem (meats & fish) and non haem (plant based foods).

Iron plays an essential role in many functions in the body, most notably as part of haemoglobin carrying oxygen around the body.  It is also a vital nutrient for the immune system and is involved in many enzymatic processes in the body, such as detoxification, protection against oxidation, protein (amino acid) metabolism and synthesis of vitamins, hormones and neurotransmitters (thyroid hormones, cortisol, serotonin and noradrenaline) and skin components collagen and elastin (Braun & Cohen, 2007).

Daily iron requirements

Your daily iron requirements are dependent on age, gender, and life stage.

Gender/lifespan Age Daily   requirement
Male 19-70   + yr 8   mg
Female 19-50   yr / 51-   70 + yr 18   mg / 8   mg
Pregnancy 19-50   yr 27   mg
Breastfeeding 19-50   yr 9   mg
Children   (All)Girls  


1-3   yr  4-8   yr9-13   yr14-18   yr

9-13   yr

14-18   yr

9 mg 10 mg8 mg15 mg

8 mg

11 mg

(NHMRC, 2005)

What foods contain iron?

Haem iron is found in animal products  such as red meat, chicken, fish, oysters, shellfish and organ meats such as liver, kidney and heart.

Non haem iron is found in plant foods such as nuts, legumes, fruit, dried fruit, tofu, grains and vegetables such as beetroot.  Dairy foods are a comparatively poor source of iron.

You may also find iron-fortified foods including egg yolks, dried fruit, enriched breads, pasta and cereals.

Haem iron is better absorbed (2-3 times more readily) than non haem iron (Braun & Cohen, 2007) in the small intestine.  Non haem iron is bound to other food substances and needs to be cleaved by gastric acid or pepsin prior to absorption.


Comparison of haem and non haem iron absorption

Cooked red   meat (100g) Cooked   vegetables (200g)
Contains   iron – 4.1g Contains   iron – 6.4g
Absorption   in body – 20% Absorption   in body – 5%
Iron   intake – 0.8mg Iron   intake – 0.06 mg

(Saxelby, 2012)

We absorb approximately 1000 per cent more iron from red meat than from vegetables such as spinach.  Vegetarians need to eat twice to three times as much non haem iron.


 Factors which help and hinder non haem iron absorption

The amount of absorption of non haem iron can be enhanced or inhibited by other foods or beverages consumed in a meal.

Ensure adequate production of gastric acid and digestive enzymes

Combine non haem iron foods with those containing acids such as Vitamin C

Kiwifruit Broccoli Green &   Red Capsicum
Chilli Oranges/Citrus fruits Strawberries
Peas Papaya Rockmelon
Mango Cabbage Cauliflower


Combine non haem foods with fruits containing sugars such as fructose

Take tea/coffee/soft drinks/mineral water away from non haem containing meals (at least an hour before or after meals)

Calcium reduces iron absorption – avoid high calcium foods 30mins before/after iron rich meals

Cooking in cast iron pots may increase iron intake

Soak grains (in water or water/1tbs yoghurt), sprout or cook to reduce phytic acid (an ‘anti-nutrient’ which may bind to iron and hasten excretion).  Soak & ‘activate’ nuts

Cook spinach, chard, silverbeet to neutralise oxalic acid

Meal suggestions include:

Chilli con carne with tinned/fresh tomatoes and kidney beans

Spinach stir fry with capsicum, cabbage and broccoli or chinese broccoli

Porridge or Muesli with strawberries & mango


Simple changes to add more iron to your diet

Dried   fruit such as prunes & figs Add   to cereal/porridge, salads, casseroles
Blackstrap   molasses Add   to baked goods
Beef   (palm sized portion) Stir   fry, casserole, slow cook, Thai salad, bbq
Organ   meats Steak   and kidney casserole, pate
Sardines,   mackerel Add   to salad or use on whole grain crackers as snack
Eggs Hardboiled,   breakfast, frittata, omelettes
Dried   pulses and lentils* Salads,   casseroles, dahls, soups
Quinoa Use   in breakfast, salad, soups and casseroles
Tahini Use   as a spread or thickener
Spirulina Add   to smoothies
Pumpkin   seeds Smoothies,   snack, salads
Tomato   paste Casseroles,   soups


Do you have any iron rich recipe ideas?  Please share in the comments below

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