If you’re feeling tired and lethargic, there’s a chance you might not be getting enough iron in your diet.
There are lots of ways to increase your intake of iron with a wide range of foods - even if you can’t get to the shops very often. Read our simple food hacks.
Why it’s important to get enough iron
Iron is a mineral that helps transport oxygen around your body, and it’s essential for our bodies to function properly, says Felicity Curtain, Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
If you don’t get enough iron in your diet, you might have low energy, feel tired and sluggish, and be sensitive to cold weather, Curtain says.
“Those are the signs and symptoms that indicate it's time to check in with your GP.”
Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world. It’s most
common among women, especially those in the child-bearing years.
A survey of women found that 20% of Australian women aren’t getting enough iron in their diets.
“And that's just looking at what we're eating, not necessarily what we're absorbing in our bodies,” Curtain says.
Boost your iron through food
Women aged between 14 and 50 need about 18mg of iron a day, while men need less - around 8mg a day.
That doesn’t mean you need to eat a giant steak every day, Curtain says.
“There are lots of foods that we can get iron from, and a lot of those are healthy foods that we should have in our diet every day.”
Try to include in your diet lots of green leafy veggies, nuts and seeds, legumes, and tofu – these are all iron-rich foods.
“Experiment with different foods that you don't usually eat, and think about what you can add to your normal diet to make sure you’re getting enough iron.”
Animal sources of iron are the most easily absorbed
The best and most readily absorbed sources of iron are from animal-based foods.
Animal sources have a type of iron called haem iron, which is more “bioavailable”, which means it’s absorbed by your body more efficiently.
“All animal-based meats are the richest and most easily absorbed forms of iron,” Curtain says.
For rich sources of animal-based iron, choose:
- Red meat such as beef and kangaroo
Where to find plant sources of iron
If you don’t eat meat, there are still good sources of iron in plant-based foods – many of which are long-lasting pantry staples, which is good news if you aren’t visiting the shops as often.
But be aware that plant-based foods contain a different kind of iron called non-haem iron, which means it isn’t as easily absorbed by our bodies.
“We’d need to eat a lot of those foods to get the same level of iron you’d get from animal-based sources,” Curtain says.
If you follow what’s known as a “flexitarian” diet, where you increase your intake of plant-based meals without completely eliminating meat, then this is relevant for you too.
“For those who don't eat meat, or those who like a bit more variety and flexitarian style of eating, you can certainly get iron from other sources.”
Good sources of plant-based iron include:
- Legumes including lentils, chickpeas, beans
- Soy-based foods such as tofu, tempeh, iron-enriched soy milk
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dried fruit such as apricots
- Nuts and seeds
- Cereals fortified with iron
“Probably the richest source of iron in the typical Australian diet is from cereals, because a lot of breakfast cereals are fortified with iron,” Curtain says.
Boost iron absorption with vitamin C
If you want to increase your intake of iron, then there are some simple hacks to boost its absorption, Curtain says.
Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron, so an easy way to boost iron absorption is to have a glass of orange juice with your meal. Another way is to add some vitamin C-rich strawberries to your iron-fortified breakfast cereal.
At lunch time, have a salad with lentils or tofu for iron, plus vegetables such as capsicum, which is high in vitamin C, Curtain says.
Avoid tea and coffee with meals
Many of us can’t get through the day without tea and coffee, but they can stop your body absorbing iron.
“Both tea and coffee contain polyphenols, which is generally a good thing because they're antioxidants,” Curtain says. “But it also blocks the absorption of iron in our body.”
The inhibiting effect of polyphenols only happens when you have tea or coffee at the same time as food, so try not to have them with meals.
If you love drinking black tea, coffee, herbal tea or cocoa, wait a couple of hours after eating before having your cuppa.
“There's nothing wrong with tea, and in fact we know it can be really good for you,” Curtain says.
“But make sure you're having it at a different time. For example, wait until morning tea time to have your cup of coffee rather than having it alongside your fortified breakfast cereal.”
Why iron-rich food is better than supplements
It can be tempting to just take iron supplements if you feel you might be low in iron.
But it can be dangerous to self-diagnose, and you should always check with your GP first and ask for a blood test, Curtain says.
“It’s simple to get a blood test and get your iron levels checked.”
Eating iron-rich food should always be your first step to boost your iron levels, Curtain says.
“Food is more than just the nutrients that it provides. For example, red meat provides iron, but it also provides vitamin B12, protein and many other kinds of really important nutrients.”
If tests show that you are iron deficient, then follow the medical advice that’s tailored to your individual situation.
“But remember that food should always be an easy go-to source of essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function well.”
To find a local accredited practising dietitian to personalise your nutrition advice, speak to your GP or go to the Dietitians Association of Australia website.
Read more tips on boosting iron in your diet here.
Felicity Curtain is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.