Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, so it’s important to know a little bit more about it. It plays by the Goldilocks rule of “not too little, but not too much either”, as iron overload can also be dangerous.
What are food sources of iron
There are two dietary forms of iron. Haem iron found in animal products, meats, poultry and fish – with the richest sources of iron being found in red meat and organ meats. This represents about 10% of dietary iron and it’s absorption is about 25%.
Non-haem iron is found primarily in plant based foods. The most iron rich plant food sources being dark leafy green vegetables, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sun-dried tomatoes, kidney beans, tofu, parsley, chickpeas, cumin, spinach and dried apricots.
Non-haem iron accounts for 90% of dietary iron but its absorption is lower, at about 17%. If non-haem iron is consumed with Vitamin C however, the absorption can increase 6 fold.
We need varying amounts of iron according to our age, sex, body weight, as well menstrual losses, growth needs and diet. Vegans and vegetarians will need more iron if their diet is inadequate in vegetable iron sources.
What is iron in the body
For one, iron is part of our haemoglobin which is required for oxygen transport and keeps us alive! It is part of myoglobin, required for oxygen storage in muscle too. It is present in catalase and peroxidase, part of our major antioxidants enzymes that protect us against free radicals and reactive oxygen species. What's more, iron is present in cytochromes – part of our liver detoxification system and is a critical component of our mitochondria (involved in energy production).
Importantly, the thyroid gland requires iron to make thyroid hormone, and every cell in your body has a receptor for thyroid hormone – so it’s pretty much needed for everything!
Low iron symptoms
Some early signs that you could be low in iron include fatigue, reduced mental productivity and work productivity, loss of motivation and concentration. Longer term deficiency signs include weakness, fatigue, poor resistance to colds, pale skin and difficulty stopping headaches.
However, make sure to always get your levels checked before you supplement. If you are taking an iron supplement, absorption improves when they are taken between meals or on an empty stomach, NOT with milk, tea or coffee which impair absorption. Taking it with Vitamin C will not improve absorption as supplements are already in the ferrous form.
One popular dish that includes many iron-rich ingredients and can be both meat or vegetarian is the delicious, Chilli Con Carne! Here's a great recipe for you to prepare to get your daily iron intake. Serve with a leafy salad and some seeds and you are good to go!
Healthy and Easy Chilli Con Carne Recipe
1 large onion
1 bulb of garlic
2 heap tablespoons of cumin
1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (optional)
1 x 280g jar of sun dried tomatoes with the oil
1 x 680g jar of passata
1 cinnamon stick
500 grams of lean mince
1 tin of kidney beans
Blitz the onion and garlic cloves in a food processor with 1/2 a cup of water until liquified.
Add this to a pan and let it warm up on a low heat with the cumin.
To this add the mince and mix until browned.
Blend the sun dried tomatoes together with the passata until it's a smooth paste. Add this to the mince and mix well.
Add a cinnamon stick some salt and pepper and let it cook on low heat for 90 minutes.
Add the kidney beans in the last 5 mins to warm them through.
This is a really versatile recipe and I usually double up the recipe and freeze some in portions (without the kidney beans) that I can use later in tacos or for a base in a lasagne or bolognese sauce.
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The Worlds Healthiest Foods. (2017). Iron rich foods.
Osiecki, H (2010). The Nutrient Bible. 8:the d. Australia: Bio Concepts Publishing. 147-149.
Mindell, E (2011). New Vitamin Bible. New York: Hachette Book group. 110-113.