Iron is a mineral that has many different roles in the body. Iron is particularly important for making haemoglobin: a protein contained in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. Iron also plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy immune system (your body’s natural defence system).
In this fact sheet:
- What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
- Which foods are good sources of iron?
- How much iron do I need?
- Iron and vegetarianism
- What about vitamin C?
- Tips to ensure an iron-rich diet
- Menu ideas
- Download this information as a PDF
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
People with mild iron deficiency often feel tired, lacking in energy and tend to be more susceptible to infections.
With more severe iron deficiency (called iron deficiency anaemia) symptoms such as heart palpitations, brittle nails, thinning hair, itchy skin (pruritus) and mouth sores or ulcers can develop.
Iron rich foods
Many different foods contain iron in different amounts. Some food sources are more ironrich than others. For example, animal-based sources such as red meat (beef, lamb and pork) are particularly rich sources of iron and are most easily absorbed, and to a lesser extent fish and poultry. (see Table 2)
Plant-based sources of iron include pulses and legumes (such as beans, peas, and lentils), dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, cabbage, and broccoli), tofu, nuts and seeds.
The iron in animal-based sources is often referred to as ‘haem iron’ whilst the iron in plant-based sources is often referred to as ‘non-haem iron’. ‘Haem iron’ can increase the absorption of ‘nonhaem iron’.
Therefore, to improve iron status it can be beneficial to eat, for example, red meat (beef, lamb or pork) alongside green leafy vegetables. Many breakfast cereals are also fortified with iron.
How much iron do I need?
Iron and vegetarianism
Although not as easily absorbed as animal-based sources, plant-based foods such as beans, grains and vegetables also contain iron.
Some plant-based foods contain more iron than others and food preparation can enhance iron absorption. For example, cooking, soaking nuts and seeds and using sprouted seeds and grains. Try and opt for the more iron-rich plant-based foods ( see Iron in different foods table below).
What about vitamin C?
Although vitamin C has been shown to increase the absorption of iron, it is currently unclear as to whether this improves iron status. Nevertheless, fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C should be eaten in regularly in the diet.
Tips to ensure an iron-rich diet
- Add green leafy vegetables to main meals.
- Add dried fruit to desserts and have fruit and (or) nuts as snacks between meals.
- Try iron fortified products.
Fortified breakfast cereal or wholemeal toast. Piece of fruit.
Wholemeal sandwich with tuna, sliced beef or pork and salad.
or Sardines or baked beans on wholemeal toast.
or Salad sprinkled with seeds with a portion of meat, fish or pulses and potatoes.
Serving of meat, fish, poultry or pulses with vegetables and potatoes.
or Bean curry or chilli served with potatoes and side salad
or Baked potato (with skin) with baked beans and vegetables
Fruit (fresh or dried), handful of nuts
*These menu ideas are just a guide. For tailored dietary advice, seek assistance from a dietitian.
Iron in different foods (Iron per 100g)
Iron is an important mineral we need to have in our daily diet. Opt for a variety of iron-rich foods to ensure an adequate intake of iron.
Download this fact sheet as a PDF
This Food Factsheet is a public service of The British Dietetic Association (BDA) intended for information only. It is not a substitute for proper medical diagnosis or dietary advice given by a dietitian.
If you need to see a dietitian, visit your GP for a referral or a private dietitian.
Written by Dr Sammie Gill, Dietitian. Reviewed by Carrie Ruxton, Ruth Breese and Sandra Hood, Dietitians.
© BDA September 2017. Review date September 2020.