Laura Clark is a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at LEC Nutrition who writes monthly here at Honest Mum, sharing her wisdom and experience on health, diet and wellbeing. This month she advises on how to up your iron.
Over to Laura:
Iron is an essential mineral that according to survey data 27% of women and 45% of girls don’t get enough of. Menstrual loss is the most common cause of iron deficiency in pre-menopausal women, so if you bleed particularly heavily or for a prolonged time, iron will be really important for you.
Its functions in the body are broad: transporting oxygen around and providing energy are probably the most well-known but it is also essential for growth and repair, brain and immune function.
It can take a while for full blown iron deficiency to develop – iron stores decrease first, then once blood iron (known as haemoglobin) falls, anaemia will develop because the functions that rely on iron cannot be carried out. Anaemia is associated with fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath, irritability and if not treated, can reduce your immunity.
Iron tablets may be needed and if you suspect your iron is low it is important to see your GP.
Iron comes in 2 forms, haem and non-haem with haem iron being more readily absorbed by the body and found significantly in meat and meat products. Although non– haem iron is less well absorbed, it does account for most of the iron we take in. In fact, cereals and cereal products are the biggest contributor of iron in the UK diet for everyone. This is helped by the fortification of cereals which became law in 1953.
Meat, especially red and offal is a valuable source of iron but it has fallen out of favour with many people recently and plant based eating is on the rise. Whether you are following a vegetarian diet or just becoming more mindful of eating less meat, it is easy to meet your iron needs with non- haem sources but it becomes more of a challenge when whole food groups are excluded e.g. carbs or veg or if the diet is lacking in variety.
Women need 14.8mg of iron a day. To give you an idea dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, curly kale or broccoli contain around 1-2mg for an 80g portion. Other good sources include pulses. A 200g portion e.g. chickpeas, beans and lentils will give you 2-3mg and a 30g serve of dried apricots provides 2.7mg. Cashew nuts and sunflower seeds will give you around 2mg for a 30g portion. As a comparison a couple of beef slices will be 3mg but fortified cereal e.g. a couple of Weetabix contain nearly 5mg! Phytates found in fibrous cereals can inhibit iron absorption a little so to boost your iron absorption, especially the non- haem kind, eat iron-rich foods together with those containing vitamin C at a meal for example citrus fruit, peppers and tomatoes.
Check out these meal ideas for a nutritious iron and vitamin C combination:
Spaghetti bolognaise served with curly kale.
Beef and broccoli stir fry.
Smoked mackerel, red pepper and chickpea salad.
Jacket potato and baked beans followed by a kiwi.
Chicken and lentil cous cous followed by a juicy orange!
Tinned Sardines on wholemeal toast.
Fortified breakfast cereal with a glass of orange juice.
It’s also wise to avoid drinking tea at meal times as the tannins it contains will inhibit iron absorption. One cup drunk with a meal has been shown to reduce iron absorption by as much as 75%. This is probably worth telling your parents as along with teenage girls, people over 65 have a higher incidence of iron deficiency. I’ve also flagged to Grandma (my Mum) about the importance of protein in her diet because I fear her marmalade fetish is probably not helping her as discussed over on
In the meantime, keeping pumping that iron in ladies!
Read more of Laura’s posts here: How to Lose Weight Healthily, How to Lose Weight as a Busy Mama, Food Assumptions and How They Affect Their Children, and Confessions of a Dietitian Mum: What I Actually Feed My Children.