Ironclad nutrition

ironBeat the cold war with an iron-boosted plate this winter


Fatigued, irritable, lacking in concentration? Iron is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, so if you have these symptoms, you may be low in iron.

Most people know that meat is high in iron, but did you know that consuming it with food that’s high in Vitamin C can boost your body’s iron intake?

Learning about the different types of iron and ways to increase iron absorption is crucial, given that a staggering 80 percent of the world’s population is estimated to be low in iron, making it the world’s most common nutritional deficiency.

Basic and important purposes of Iron

Iron is an essential component of a healthy balanced diet. Its most vital function is to carry oxygen around the body but it also promotes a healthy immune system by helping white blood cells fight bacteria and is a key component of the muscle protein (myoglobin).

Despite all these important roles, iron is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide1, with research suggesting that as much as 80 percent of the world’s population is iron deficient, while 30 percent may have iron deficiency anaemia2. Anaemia involves having less than optimal red blood cells in your blood so that insufficient oxygen is circulating. If you are low in iron, you may feel fatigued, irritable and lack concentration.

Australia’s recommended dietary intake (RDI) of iron is 8mg per day for all adult men and for women over the age of 51; 18mg per day for women aged 19 to 50; and 27mg for pregnant women3

Not one but two food sources of iron

There are two types of iron found in food – haem and non-haem.

Haem iron is more readily absorbed by the body and is found in animal products, such as red meat, chicken, fish, eggs and offal products like liver or kidney. The body can absorb 15 to 35 percent of the iron contained in animal products.

Non-haem iron is found in plant foods, some of which include broccoli, beans, nuts, dried apricots, peanut butter and iron-fortified cereals. The body typically absorbs 2 to 20 percent of non-haem iron.

An individual’s iron stores have the greatest impact on the amount of iron the body absorbs. If an individual’s iron stores are low, their iron absorption will increase.

Non-haem iron absorption, in particular, is significantly affected by dietary intake, with certain combinations of foods playing an important part.

Consuming Vitamin C with non-haem iron sources makes it easier for the body to absorb the iron – for example, a glass of orange juice with a whole wheat or iron-fortified cereal, red capsicum with a brown rice dish, or some tomato on multigrain bread with baked beans. Cooking vegetables or legumes with meat can also increase the absorption of non-haem iron, even if the meat is not consumed.

Conversely, non-haem iron absorption can be inhibited by certain food combinations. Inhibitors include caffeine (tea, coffee and cola drinks), large amounts of phytates (cereals, brans and green leafy vegetables) and soy proteins.

Calcium supplements should also not be taken at the same time as iron supplements as they compete for absorption.  

That's the what, here's the how
  • Include iron-rich foods at meals, such as red meat, offal and iron-fortified cereals.
  • Follow the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and eat red meat three to four times a week.
  • To maximise absorption, combine non-haem sources of iron with foods rich in Vitamin C or with foods containing haem iron.
  • Avoid drinking tea, coffee and cola drinks with your meal.

References: 1 2 ‘Iron Deficiency Anaemia: Assessment, Prevention and Control. A guide for programme managers’, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2001 WHO/NHD/01.3 3 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand, 2006.

Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.