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Spotlight on iron in the diet

Nutrition surveys show low intakes of iron among young children, teenage girls, pregnant women and elderly people are surprisingly common in the UK. Low iron intakes can put people at risk of developing anaemia. So how can we hit the spot when it comes to getting the iron we need from our diet?

What is iron?

Iron is classed as a trace element and the average human body contains between 2 and 4 grams. Most iron can be found in the blood where it is used to make the red pigment called haemoglobin. Haemoglobin transports oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues. Iron also plays a crucial role in how energy is derived from the food we eat.

What happens if we do not get enough iron in our diet?

If the diet does not contain enough iron, stores of iron in the liver and bone marrow become low and the body cannot make enough healthy red blood cells. This results in a condition know as iron deficiency anaemia. In young children low intakes of iron can effect brain development.

What are the symptoms of anaemia?

Iron deficient anaemia means your body is running dangerously short of iron which can affect the ability to perform physical and mental work. The most common symptoms include: tiredness, shortness of breath, palpitations and pale complexion.     

How to diagnose iron deficiency anaemia

A GP can diagnose anaemia from conducting a simple blood test. It is important not to self diagnose anaemia because your symptoms may be caused by something other than anaemia.

Which foods contain iron?

There are two kinds of iron found in our food. Heam iron which is found in meat and animal products and is the most efficiently absorbed form of iron; and non-haem iron found in plant foods.

Interestingly most of the iron in the UK diet is derived from fortified breakfast cereals and bread. This is largely because these foods are fortified with iron.

The best sources of iron in the diet are:

  • meat, fish and tofu
  • dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and curly kale
  • iron-fortified cereals and bread
  • brown rice 
  • pulses and beans
  • nuts and seeds
  • eggs
  • dried fruit, such as dried apricots, prunes and raisins

Boost absorption

You can boost the absorption of iron from food by including plenty of foods containing vitamin C, like fruit and fresh vegetables. The tannin in tea inhibits the absorption of iron so it is not the best drink to go with meals.

How much iron is needed in the diet each day?

The recommended daily intake of iron for adult women is 14.8 mg and for children under 5 years is 6 mg. If you eat a healthy balanced diet, which includes a variety of foods containing iron, it will help to get enough iron in your diet.

Here is an example of what to eat to get enough iron each day

 

Iron (mg)

A bowl of fortified breakfast cereal (30g)

3.4

1 boiled egg

2

1 bowl of lentil soup (220g)

2.6

3 slices of wholegrain bread  (72g)

2.5

Grilled, lean rump steak (102g)

2.5

1 portion of curly kale (80g)

1.6

Dried apricots (50g)

2.5

Total iron from food

15.5

Can you eat too much iron?

It is important not to consume too much iron because it can be toxic. Be cautious when taking iron supplements and do not exceed the recommended amount. Side effects of iron supplements may include constipation and stomach upsets. Keep all supplements containing iron out of reach of children.

Although liver is a good source of iron, pregnant women are advised against eating it. This is because it is also rich in vitamin A which in large amounts can harm an unborn child.

About 1 in 200 people has a genetic condition called haemochromatosis where iron builds up over time, leading to excessive levels. If you have a family member with haemochromatosis, you should be screened to determine if you are at risk.