Iron is an essential nutrient needed to transport oxygen around the body and create red blood cells. You also need it for a healthy immune system, to regulate hormones and to produce energy.
The body isn’t able to make iron itself, so it needs to acquire this mineral from food. How much you need depends on your age, gender and current health, but typically adults require around 18 milligrams per day.
Iron deficiency is pretty common, particularly among females of childbearing age, those who are pregnant and non-meat eaters. It can lead to anaemia, which can result in symptoms such as fatigue, pale skin, dizziness and hair loss. But it doesn’t stop there. If you experience a wide range of symptoms such as heart palpitations, tinnitus, a sore tongue, itchy skin and feeling cold all the time, iron-deficiency anaemia may well be to blame.
The good news is that with a little bit of tweaking of your diet, you can ensure your body gets enough iron to function properly. Here’s how to boost your stores.
The body obtains iron from heme sources of food, which are typically animal products that contain a protein called haemoglobin. This includes red meats like beef and pork, organ meats such as liver, poultry like chicken and turkey, fish such as salmon or tuna and seafood such as oysters and muscles.
Animal foods or heme sources of the mineral are most easily absorbed by the body, and are usually regarded as the best type for increasing your stores. Try to regularly include these in your diet if you need to top up flagging iron levels.
If you’re a vegetarian you don’t need to convert to eating meat or fish however to get your iron levels on an even keel. As well as heme sources, you can also get this mineral through non-heme types. Worthy non-heme sources include green leafy veg such as kale and spinach, legumes, fortified cereals, wholegrains, dried fruits, soya and seeds.
Non-heme isn’t absorbed as well by the body as heme sources, however. Because of this, experts reckon non-meat eaters should multiply their daily recommended iron intake by 1.8 times to make up for the lowered absorption rate.
It’s not just what you eat that makes a difference to your iron stores, but how effectively it is absorbed also has a role to play. There are certain foods or substances that can either improve how it is absorbed or even hinder it.
For example, studies show that if you eat non-heme sources, it’s absorbed more efficiently by the body if you combine it with foods rich in vitamin C. So, for instance, drink a glass of orange juice with your meal.
Vitamin A also helps your body to assimilate the mineral, so when cooking green leafy veg, mix it with some carrots or sweet potatoes. In fact, one study found that adding vitamin A to rice increased absorption by up to 200%.
On the other hand, avoid adding foods high in calcium to iron-rich meals as this can reduce absorption. Researchers have found that 165 milligrams of calcium can slash absorption by 50-60%.
Additionally, polyphenols, which are abundant in drinks such as coffee, tea and wine, can hinder absorption, so cut down drinking these with a meal. Leave a couple of hours after eating an iron-heavy meal before you consume these types of beverages.
In some cases, you may need to take supplements to boost your stores, but always seek advice from a medical expert before you go down this route. Typically, it takes around three months to get your stores up to reasonable levels.