Many people don’t eat or absorb enough iron, leading to iron deficiency, and it can have a big impact on our health. 

Who is at risk of anaemia?

The groups most at risk of iron deficiency anaemia are

  • children aged 1½–2½ years,
  • girls aged 15–18 years,
  • women aged 35–49 years,
  • institutionalised men aged 65 years and
  • over, and free-living adults aged 85 years and over

There is a lot we can do to help increase our iron levels through diet and lifestyle.

What does iron do in our body?

It’s a vital mineral for our health. As well as helping the transport of oxygen around the body in haemoglobin, iron is a co-factor supporting the work of enzymes to make hormones, amino acids, neurotransmitters and collagen (for healthy skin and bones).

Even a slight reduction in the amount from your diet can interfere with motivation and energy.

Iron deficiency may be mistaken for apathy and/or being less mentally alert.

Preventing iron deficiency – Iron rich foods

There are two types of iron – Haem iron-found in animal products (meats, poultry, fish) and Non-haem iron (found mostly in plant foods).

Including these foods in your diet will improve your levels:

  • Dark leafy green vegetables i.e. parsley, spinach
  • Red meat, organ meats, oysters, clams, poultry
  • Pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes, beans, lentils, soybeans
  • Apricots, raisins

The best source of iron is liver, 100g can provide 6mg of iron!

A cup of lentils will provide around 6mg, but this is non-haem iron so not as easily absorbed.  The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron in the UK is 8.7mg a day for men and 14.8mg a day for women. 

Iron stores – Ferritin

As we eat more, surplus iron is stored in the protein ferritin, primarily in the liver but also in the bone marrow and spleen.  Ferritin is what gets measured when you have a blood test at the GP.

Vegetarians typically have lower ferritin levels, and need to concentrate on sources of iron rich foods, especially menstruating women as iron losses can be significant with a heavy bleed each month.

However, it’s easy to get enough iron on a vegetarian diet by regularly eating plant based sources such as soy beans, tofu, lentils, kidney beans, seeds, dried fruits and black strap molasses.

Should I take an iron supplement?

It’s not advised to supplement with iron without testing your levels first. This is because if we have too much iron floating around the body it can become a pro-oxidant, causing damage to cells.

Some people can benefit from taking supplements to enhance their diet, but speak to a health professional before taking iron supplements.

Iron from supplements is less well absorbed than from food, so eating an iron rich diet is preferable.

How can I improve dietary iron absorption?

Firstly it’s important to heal any inflammation in the gut.

Cells in the gut wall control iron absorption by holding iron temporarily as the body assesses whether the diet has brought enough iron in that day or not.

These cells are typically shed every 2-3 days and excreted, but if there is inflammation, the cells can be damaged and absorption impaired.

Avoid wheat bran with your iron rich foods, because this can impair absorption. Avoid drinking tea before or after meals because the tannin can interfere with iron absorption.

Hi I'm Anna Mapson, registered Nutritionist (mBANT, CNHC). I help people with IBS, SIBO, reflux and other gut health issues.

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