How to boost your iron intake
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London - Most people don’t get enough iron from their diets.
The nutrient is vital for health, helping our bodies make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.
It plays a key role in a range of important bodily functions - a lack of iron can lead to symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin, hair loss and an irregular heartbeat, as well as affecting memory and concentration.
According to EU recommendations, we’re meant to have 14 mg of iron a day. But on average, men get only 11.7 mg and women just 9.6 mg. Meanwhile, nearly half of girls aged 11 to 18 have less than 8 mg a day - the amount they need to avoid deficiency. The problem of a lack of iron is more acute in females because they lose iron with menstruation. But a poor diet can also contribute to a deficiency.
“It’s hard to get enough iron with a balanced diet, let alone when women are drastically cutting calories or following faddy diets such as juice fasts or low-carb regimens,” says Sioned Quirke, of the British Dietetic Association. Another factor may be that women tend to eat less meat, which is a good source of iron.
The main sources of the nutrient are meat, fortified breakfast cereals, bread and vegetables.
But the form of iron in meat (particularly red meat) poultry and fish, known as haem iron, is better absorbed than the iron from plant sources and eggs, known as non-haem iron. “It’s even more important that vegetarians and people who don’t eat red meat meet the daily recommended intake of iron by eating a variety of plant sources such as pulses, vegetables and nuts,” says Sioned.
Tucking in to vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits at the same time will also help absorption, as vitamin C boosts non-haem iron uptake.
But avoid drinking tea at mealtimes - the tannins it contains can inhibit the absorption of the key nutrient.
For smart but simple ways to up your iron intake, choose between four and six items from the list below to get the recommended daily requirement of 14 mg.
3.6mg iron per 40g bowl with milk (any type)
Many breakfast cereals are fortified with iron - a modest bowl of Special K, bran flakes or Cheerios is a convenient way to get a quarter of your daily iron requirement in one go. If you have a 150ml glass of orange juice with your breakfast, it will increase the amount of iron your body absorbs.
1.9mg iron per 100g serving
Hummus is made with chickpeas and the sesame seed paste tahini, both good sources of iron. Pulses in general are rich in the nutrient, and red kidney beans score particularly well, too.
But a serving of hummus does contain 280 calories, so if you’re watching your weight, the lower-fat type (180 calories per 100g) might be better - and the iron content is not affected.
2.1mg iron per small can
Sardines provide better-absorbed haem iron, which is also found in red meat. They contain more iron than poultry (darker flesh suggests a higher iron content, thanks to a red pigment that contains iron).
A serving also provides half of your daily calcium requirement. Serve on a slice of wholemeal bread to boost iron to 3mg.
2.3mg iron per two poached eggs
A breakfast of two poached eggs on a slice of wholemeal toast supplies 3.2mg of iron (the toast bumps up the iron content) - nearly a quarter of your daily requirement. It’s the egg yolks, not the white, that provides the iron. Poached, boiled or fried eggs all contain the same amount.
2.9mg iron per half 415g can
It’s the beans that are the main source of iron here, though the tomato sauce adds some (fresh tomatoes aren’t a particularly good source, but processing into a sauce concentrates the iron). Serve on wholemeal toast with 40g watercress for 4.4mg iron, almost a third of your daily needs (vitamin C in the watercress also means you absorb the iron better).
1.8mg iron per 80g portion
Watercress is a significant source of iron, provided you eat enough (i.e. more than just a garnish - 80g is a couple of decent handfuls). Another bonus is that it’s a good source of calcium, vitamin A (for the immune system) and folic acid (for healthy blood). Use in salads, stir-fries or summer soups.
Bombay mix (known in South Africa as chevra)
1.9mg iron per 50g serving (two handfuls)
It’s the lentils, split peas and cashews (depending on the recipe) that make Bombay mix an iron-rich snack. A 50g portion, the equivalent of a couple of handfuls, supplies nearly one seventh of your daily iron requirement. But that portion size comes along with 250 calories, so be careful to avoid over-indulging.
2.3mg iron per 115g boiled portion (two handfuls raw)
All dark green, leafy veg is a good source of iron, with kale and spinach particularly rich in it. Kale is also a top provider of the yellow pigment lutein, which several studies have shown can help protect against the age-related eye disease macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss.
2.3mg iron per five sweets (30g)
Five liquorice allsorts supply 20g of sugar - 80 per cent of the maximum daily allowance of added sugar we’re supposed to consume under new guidelines. However, there is an upside - this amount also supplies 16 per cent of your recommended daily amount of iron, which comes from the liquorice.
Leg of lamb
2.7mg iron per 150g serving of roasted lamb
Lamb is a good source of iron. It provides the easily absorbed form of the nutrient, like all animal flesh - known as haem iron. Beef, liver and kidney are richer sources still. But remember to limit the amount of red and processed meat you eat to 500g a week, because it is linked to bowel cancer.
3.5mg iron per 100g serving of stir-fried tofu
Tofu is a curd made in a similar way to cheese, but from soya beans not milk. A serving of stir-fried tofu will provide as much iron as a small steak, although it’s the non-haem form.
A 100g serving of tofu also provides a sixth of your daily amount of magnesium, important for the nervous system.
2.9mg iron per 50g serving (two handfuls) of roasted cashews
All nuts provide iron, but cashews are the richest of the most popularly eaten nuts. Other good sources include pumpkin and sesame seeds. These are slightly higher in iron, so you’d only need 30g (2-3 tbsp) to get the same amount.
2.3mg iron per 250ml glass
Red and rosé wines provide large amounts of iron, while white wine contains only half as much. Bear in mind that a 250ml glass can count as 3.5 alcohol units; women aren’t meant to regularly drink more than 14 in a week (21 for men). The tannins in red wine mean the nutrient may not be as well absorbed by the body as iron from other plant sources, however.
Tuna mayonnaise sandwich
2.5mg iron per sandwich (using wholemeal bread)
Around 1.9mg of the iron is from the wholemeal bread (there would be rather less in a cheese sandwich, slightly more in an egg one). A tuna sandwich on white bread would contain 1.9mg iron; by law, white flour must be fortified with iron.