The Importance Of Iron
According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, an alarming one in four females have inadequate iron intake compared to only one in thirty males. A diet low in iron can lead to fatigue, tiredness and decreased immunity. We sat down with Swisse Dietitian Simone Austin to see how we can all UP our iron intake.
Why do we need iron?
When people are low in dietary iron they generally feel tired. This is because iron is needed to carry oxygen around your body. Iron is part of the haemoglobin molecule, which is a complex protein that transports oxygen in the blood stream.
Iron is also needed for a special protein called myoglobin which stores oxygen in your muscles – it gives the muscles their reddish colour.
The immunes system also relies on iron to help support immune system health.
Types of Iron
There are two types of iron; haem iron and non-haem iron.
Haem iron is found in animal tissue such as beef, lamb, chicken, fish and offal. Chicken liver is particularly rich in haem iron, with 11mg per 100g. Beef and kangaroo are also good sources, and salmon is a rich fish source.
Non-haem iron is found in both animal tissue and animal-based products such as eggs and dairy, and plant foods including legumes, lentils and green leafy vegetables. Your favourite childhood breakfast, Wheetbix TM, is a really high source of non-haem iron, as are kidney beans, tofu and wholemeal pasta.
Tips to increase iron absorption – the power of vitamin C
Haem iron vs non-haem iron
Animal sources of iron/haem iron are absorbed more efficiently, as they are already in the correct format for the body to absorb. Non-haem iron needs to be changed to haem iron before absorption and this is where a diet rich in vitamin C comes in handy.
The power of vitamin C
Vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables) helps to increase iron absorption as vitamin C is an ascorbic acid. The acid/base reaction changes the non-haem iron to the haem form.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, then it can be beneficial to add vitamin C-rich food to your meal. For example, a meal containing kidney beans would benefit from the addition of freshly chopped capsicum, which is high in vitamin C. Adding some fresh berries to your breakfast cereal in the morning can also help to increase the absorption of the iron.
Cook your veggies!
Cooking your veggies can increase the amount of available non-haem iron in a food. For example, the body absorbs more iron from cooked broccoli as opposed to raw broccoli.
Watch out for tannins in your tea, coffee and wine! Tannins can reduce iron absorption by binding to iron and carrying it out of the body. So, if your iron levels are low and you still want your cup of tea, try having it at a different time to when you have your main iron food sources.
Phytates, fibres, calcium & phosphorus
The phytates and fibres in wholegrains such as bran can reduce the absorption of iron. Calcium and phosphorus also reduce the absorption of plant-sourced iron.
If taking medications check these do not interfere with iron absorption. Always consult your primary healthcare professional for further advice on iron.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011, Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, ABS, viewed 4 May 2023, <https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/health-conditions-and-risks/australian-health-survey-usual-nutrient-intakes/latest-release>.