We’ve all been hearing it since we were little – ‘eat your greens, get your iron levels up’. But why? Why is giving your body enough iron such a big deal?
Iron is found in every single cell in your body. Stored in your bone marrow, liver and spleen, iron is used to carry oxygen around your body, and for the proteins in your muscles.
It also helps boost your immune system, fights infection and boosts brain power. Lack of iron causes anaemia, which causes fatigue, lack of energy and a lowered immune system (so you’ll get sick more often), and in children, low iron levels have been linked to suppressed growth, and slower intellectual development.
OK, so now we know why it’s so important. But iron deficiency is actually the most common nutrition deficiency in the world. In. The. World. And it’s so important!
First, let’s look at a few facts:
- The average male (age 19-49) needs around 8mgs of iron daily; women in the same age group need 18mgs. Pregnant women need around 27mgs.
- Up to a quarter of all Kiwi kids under 3 are thought to be iron deficient, making them more prone to illness
- Babies are born with enough iron to see them through their first six months. After that, they need iron-rich supplements and foods
- Kids and teens going through a growth spurt all need extra iron
- Anyone who’s had stomach ulcers or digestive issues that could have caused bleeding are at risk of anaemia
- Girls need to ensure their iron intake is higher when on their period
- Iron in plant food is actually harder to digest than iron in meat, so vegans and vegetarians need to plan their diet carefully
- Iron is easiest to digest when eaten alongside Vitamin C
- Drinking milk, tea or coffee during meals can reduce your iron absorption.
People who are low in iron usually know because of how they feel. If you’re permanently tired, feel weak and pale, and you keep getting colds and infections, you should get your iron levels checked. Additional symptoms are headaches, lack of focus, and getting easily short of breath.
While some people require iron supplements to get their levels back on track, there’s a lot you can do to help yourself with what you eat. You’ll be surprised at how much delicious food will get you back to full strength!
- Red meat. Beef and lamb, especially the kidneys and liver, are some of the most iron-rich foods on earth. A portion of liver can give you approximately 22% of your daily iron intake.
- Look to the sea. Oysters, sardines and tuna are particularly high in iron, as is seaweed and kelp: a daily boost of spirulina in your smoothie goes a long way!
- Beans and grains are super-high in iron, and an excellent option for vegetarians. Also full of fibre, they are great for digestion, and as they have less fat than some iron-rich options, they are a good option if you’re watching your weight.
- Spinach. Yep, Popeye (and your gran) was right. If you can’t stomach piles and piles of it raw on a salad, cook it down: my favourite is to heat 10ml high heat oil in a frying pan with a crushed garlic clove, then add a couple of handfuls of washed spinach, a bit at a time, until slightly wilted. Season and serve straightaway. Other good vegie sources of iron include peas, beans, pumpkin and silverbeet.
- Fruits like prunes and figs are great sources of iron. For an easy snack, take a little pot of raisins and pistachios to work – both great sources of iron. 1/4 of a cup of raisins will give you 6% of your daily iron intake.
- Chicken and pork. Not quite as high in iron as their lamb and beef counterparts, they pack a decent punch. The general rule for meat and fish is the darker the colour, the more iron-rich it is.
- Dark chocolate. Sweet-tooths of the world rejoice: a serving of dark chocolate contains around 4mgs of iron. What else do you need to know?!
Try some of my iron-rich recipes here: