Who needs Iron?

What is iron and what does it do?

Iron is a mineral found in some foods, which is essential for good health and for physical and mental well-being. It has three main roles:

  • To carry oxygen around the body - every cell in the body needs oxygen. There is iron in the haemoglobin of red blood cells and it carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body.
  • Ensuring a healthy immune system - the cells that fight infection depend on adequate stores of iron. This means if your iron stores are low, your body is more prone to infections.
  • Making energy - iron is essential for the body's chemical reactions that produce energy from food. Therefore, if your iron levels are low, your body may not be able to use all the energy available.

What groups are at risk of iron deficiency?

  • Women during their reproductive years and pregnancy
  • Infants, children and teenagers
  • Athletes and very active people
  • Vegetarians and vegans
  • People on restrictive or fad diets

Research shows thousands of New Zealanders, particularly those in the at-risk groups, are iron deficient.

How can I find out if I'm  iron deficient? 

The only way to find out for sure if you are iron deficient is to go to your doctor for blood tests. You should be aware there are several different tests for iron status. The first of these is haemoglobin, which effectively measures circulating amounts of iron. Haemoglobin does not reflect your long-term iron stores. For that, you need a serum ferritin test. It is possible to have normal haemoglobin levels, but low storage (ferritin) iron. Transport (transferrin) iron is another important indicator, which measures the amount of iron supplied to the bone marrow.

Possible Clinical Effects of Iron Deficiency

  • Fatigue and reduced tolerance to work
  • Developmental delay and learning difficulties
  • Reduced resistance to the cold
  • Impaired immunity (increased frequency of infections)
  • Reduced appetite
  • Deterioration in athletic performance due to decreased aerobic capacity
  • Premature births and low birth weights
  • Long-term iron deficiency leads to anaemia with more severe symptoms 
Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for Iron per day mg
Infants 0-6 months 0.2
Infants 7-12 months 11
Children 1-13 years 8-10
Boys 14-18 years 11
Girls 14-18 years 15
Women 19-50 years 18
Pregnant Women 27
Breastfeeding Women 9-10
Women over 50 years 8
Men over 19 years 8

What are the best sources of iron? 

Red meats are amongst the best sources of absorbable iron. Kidney and liver are particularly rich in iron. Lean beef and lamb are excellent sources of iron and have a higher iron content than pork, chicken or fish. In general, the redder the meat, the higher the iron content.

Where is iron found? 

Iron in food is found in two main forms: haem iron and non-haem iron. Meat, poultry and seafood contain haem iron, which is easily absorbed by the body. Up to 25% (15-35%) of the iron in beef and lamb is absorbed.

Non-haem iron, found in eggs, vegetables, grains and fruit, is poorly absorbed. As little as 5% (2-20%) of iron in spinach is useable. You need to eat about 1kg of silverbeet to get the same amount of iron provided by 100g of lean beef.

Haem Iron Foods 

Download the 'Iron - The Body's Gold' brochure (PDF, 140kb) and view the horizontal bar graph for more information.

What to do to avoid iron deficiency and have a healthy diet

  • Eat lean beef and lamb at least 3 to 4 times per week as an excellent source of iron. As a guide, a portion of meat should be about the size of the palm of your hand (not including fingers!).
  • Eat meat, poultry or fish (haem iron foods) with vegetables, breads, pasta or grains (non-haem iron foods), as haem iron helps you absorb up to 4 times more iron from non-haem iron foods.
  • Eat foods rich in vitamin C, eg oranges, kiwifruit and tomato, to help boost iron absorption from non-meat foods.
  • Alternatively, drink fruit juice with your meal, which is also high in vitamin C.
  • Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals as they reduce iron absorption.
  • Eat a variety of foods from the four food groups each day: - Breads and cereals -Fruits and vegetables - Meat and protein alternatives (eg eggs, tofu and beans) - Milk products .

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