Iron: Why do we need it and what are the best sources?

Iron deficiency occurs when there is not enough iron in the body. It is a common nutritional deficiency affecting many Australians. In fact, it is estimated that 1.1 million Australians are iron deficient.

Those of us who have low iron can develop anaemia. When we’re anaemic, we may experience fatigue, shortness of breath, light-headedness, dizziness or a fast heartbeat. Many people also appear pale. On the other hand, if we have too much iron in our body, it can be toxic. This can lead to an abnormal heart rhythm, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.

Why is iron important?

Iron is an essential mineral that is needed to produce red blood cells in the body. Red blood cells are extremely important for a variety of different functions. They help us maintain a healthy immune system, muscle strength, optimal mental function and energy levels. Iron’s main role is in red blood cells, where it helps make a protein known as haemoglobin. Haemoglobin carries oxygen in the blood from the lungs to all of the tissues in the body so they can function properly.

Pregnant women and women who menstruate need more iron than men due to a growing foetus and blood loss. In fact, pregnant women require about 27mg iron each day, while women aged 19-50 need about 18mg of iron per day. Men aged over 19 should be getting about 8mg of iron daily to meet their needs.

What are the best sources of iron?

Our bodies cannot make iron, so we need to eat foods high in iron to avoid iron deficiency. The iron in the foods we consume is absorbed through the stomach and bowel. Some of the best sources of iron include:

  • red meats such as beef, lamb, veal and pork
  • organ meats such as liver, kidneys and brain
  • poultry
  • fish or shellfish, including salmon, sardines and tuna
  • legumes (mixed beans, baked beans, lentils and chickpeas)
  • dark leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and silver beet
  • eggs
  • nuts
  • oats
  • tofu
  • dried fruit
  • wholemeal pasta and bread
  • iron-fortified bread and breakfast cereals

It’s also important to eat foods that contain Vitamin C (such as oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, kale and broccoli) as this will help your body absorb iron better.

If you think you might be low in iron, speak to a nutritionist or see your doctor.

Join our Feel Fabulous by Friday program and get a variety of recipes delivered to your inbox! Sign up here.