Without proper intake you can experience headaches, fatigue, paleness and dizziness.
Iron has a vital role in so many functions in our bodies. It is key for transporting and storing oxygen and is also a component of certain enzymes that are required for different functions, like DNA metabolism. It’s necessary for proper immune function, too.
For women, your iron requirements change notably throughout your life thanks to menstruation and pregnancy. In fact, women require over double the amount of iron as men from the ages of 19 to 50. If you’re pregnant, it’s actually more than triple.
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There are many women in this age group, however, whose intake of iron doesn’t meet the recommended guidelines. This can be a problematic as you may become iron deficient, meaning your body won’t be able to function at it’s best. You may also experience symptoms like headaches, fatigue, paleness, dizziness or be less able to do physical work.
How to ensure you’re getting enough
So, if you want to know more about iron, and ensure you have enough in your diet, here’s a quick run-down.
There are two types of iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found in animal sources and is more easily absorbed than non-haem iron, which mostly comes from plant sources.
Some of the biggest sources of iron are red meat (think beef and lamb). Livers and kidneys are particularly rich in this vital mineral. Poultry foods like chicken provide some iron as well.
You might be surprised to learn that many people get a significant amount of iron from grain sources, like breads and breakfast cereals. Iron comes from wholegrains, but this important nutrient can also be added into grainy foods as they are manufactured. Be sure to always check the ingredients list, but chances are your morning bowl of cereal could be a major contributor.
Other non-haem sources include nuts, seeds, legumes and spinach. By comparison, pumpkin and poppy seeds are some of the biggest sources of iron in the seed stakes, as are cashews for nuts. In terms of legumes, some common high-iron varieties are lentils, lima beans and red kidney beans.
How to make sure it’s absorbed
A handy trick for those who may not be eating enough iron is to use a source of vitamin C when eating an iron-containing food. For you, that might mean a squeeze of lemon juice on your steak or a zesty orange dressing over your lentil salad. Simply pairing your iron-rich food with a large side of vegetables would work well, too.
It is also important to mention that some foods hinder iron absorption, like tea and coffee for example. So, avoid having a cuppa around the time of an iron-rich meal.
Before you rush to the supplement cabinet, remember that food should always come first as your main source of any nutrient. There is a recommended upper limit of iron intake too, as having too much can be dangerous. If supplements are necessary, this should always be done under the guidance of your doctor.
This article is based on recommended daily intakes for the general healthy population. You should see Accredited Practising Dietitian for individualised advice.
Here are 9 top sources of iron. Plus, here’s how to tell if you’re iron deficient or just tired.
Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can follow her @honest_nutrition.
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