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How to Include More Iron in Your Diet

Updated on June 19, 2013
Photo © Redberry Sky
Photo © Redberry Sky

Iron deficiency is fairly common in women between puberty and menopause. A serious deficiency can take many months and even years to correct, and there can be some unpleasant side-effects of taking iron supplements, so getting enough iron in your diet and making sure your absorption rate of iron is at its best can be very important for health.

There are three main factors in maintaining healthy iron levels through diet if you are prone to deficiency:

  • Eating iron-rich foods
  • Increasing your absorption of iron
  • Avoiding iron absorption inhibitors at mealtimes

Iron Deficiency and Overload

Maintaining healthy iron levels in your body can be quite a tricky business. Too little can lead to anaemia, which can cause symptoms such as hair loss, hair overgrowth, confusion, fatigue, Angular Cheilitis (sore cracks or splits at the corners of the mouth), and many others.

But too much iron can also cause serious health problems. The body is fairly competent at maintaining a healthy level as long as you have a healthy diet, and as long as you do not have hemochromatosis (a condition of iron overload usually found only in people who inherit the condition or have undergone blood transfusions). For healthy people, the body will regulate its absorption of iron from food depending on need.

Anaemia and low ferritin (stored iron) is most common in women of child-bearing age, although it can affect older women, children and men too. If you suspect that you are lacking in iron, get your suspicions checked out by your doctor or nutritionist, because the symptoms of low iron are also common in other conditions, and even if your suspicions are correct it's always a good idea to check if there are any underlying causes for the problem.

Heme and Non-Heme Iron

Heme iron is the kind of iron we get from animal sources like meat and fish. We absorb heme iron quite easily, and very little interferes with its absorption.

Non-heme iron is iron from non-animal sources – from fruit, vegetables and grains. We absorb non-heme iron less well, and lots of other foods and drinks can make it unavailable for our bodies' use.

Increasing Iron Absorption from Foods

Eating heme iron in the same meal as non-heme iron increases absorption of the non-heme; so having a meal of beef steak with some brocolli and cabbage (which are all iron-rich foods) will maximise the iron you get from these foods.

Vitamin C also vastly improves our uptake of iron, so adding a vitamin C-rich vegetable such as a lightly cooked bell pepper (which is an excellent source of this vitamin) to the meal will improve iron absorption even further.

Avoiding Iron Inhibitors at Mealtimes – Tea, Coffee, Milk and Wholegrains

The polyphenols in tea and coffee, the calcium in milk, and phytate in whole grains stop a lot of non-heme iron being available to our bodies.

This doesn't mean that you need to stop eating and drinking these entirely, but if you are low on iron, avoiding them for a couple of hours before and after your main meal of the day can help enormously – some studies show that tea in particular can reduce iron absorption by two-thirds or more; coffee by about a third.

Berries for Vitamin C

Fruit is the best way to get vitamin C. Photo © Redberry Sky
Fruit is the best way to get vitamin C. Photo © Redberry Sky

Some of the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Angular cheilitis
  • Breathing difficulties – 'air hunger' where you feel like you can't take a deep enough breath
  • Pale skin
  • Opportunistic infections – attacks of cold sores, yeast infections, regular colds and coughs
  • Hair loss, or hair overgrowth

Many of these may be because iron is essential to proper immune function, so if you're low on iron your body will be unable to fight off minor infections quite so easily.

Increasing iron absorption with vitamin C

Some of the negative effects of iron absorption inhibitors can be offset by making sure you eat lots of vitamin C-rich foods throughout the day and especially at meal times, or taking 50-100mg vitamin C supplement with meals (though be wary of high or mega-doses of vitamin C as it there is evidence that it can cause quite a lot of damage in high dose supplemental form – though any amount eaten through fruit and veggies is safe).

Foods Rich in Iron

Meat and fish all contain high levels of iron, the best being liver and other organ meats, red meat like beef steak and lamb, and the dark-meat parts of poultry like the thighs and legs of turkey and chicken. Shellfish is also a very good source, as is salmon – wild salmon being the best.

Green vegetables are also extremely good sources – kale, cabbage, broccoli, spinach and spring greens are rich not only in iron but also in vitamin C and other nutrients – though remember that the iron in these is less well-absorbed and some of these, spinach especially, contain phytate (like whole grains do) that will inhibit iron absorption, so eating them as part of a meal containing heme iron and sources of vitamin C is important to get the best from them.

Beans, and pulses such as lentils are also incredibly good sources, and they also contain a good amount of protein and are low in fat. So if you are trying to increase your iron levels, toss a can of butter beans (lima beans) or kidney beans into your casseroles and stews, and have baked beans on toast for your breakfast with a glass of fresh orange juice.

Dried fruit like apricots are rich in this iron, as are prunes and dates. It can be tricky to find recipes that include a good amount of these, but snacking on them through the day can be a delicious way not only to get more iron, but also to keep away from the temptations of chocolate and cakes when the between-meals hunger pangs strike.

Don't Neglect the Herbs and Spices!

Some herbs and spices are extraordinarily high in iron – thyme and turmeric are especially good, as are rosemary and oregano.

Whilst you definitely wouldn’t want to eat any of these in bulk, adding a teaspoon of one or two of them to soups and stews will add quite generous amounts of iron, and the added bonus is that many herbs and spices have some wonderful health benefits – turmeric for instance seems to be capable of sharpening the mind and memory, and warding off common chronic diseases of aging like Alzheimer's, as well as being an anti-inflammatory food and possibly having antibacterial and antiviral effects!

Roasted chicken thighs with summer vegetables. Photo © Redberry Sky
Roasted chicken thighs with summer vegetables. Photo © Redberry Sky

Links to Iron-rich Recipes

Try to include a high-iron main meal two or three times a week in your diet. If you are vegetarian, a lentil stew or bean cassoulet might be just the thing; if you eat meat try my wonderful chicken livers with healthy garlic bread. Chicken soup made from scratch using the bones to make the chicken stock base can be a good source of iron and lots of other delicious nutrition, or else simply treat yourself to a filet mignon steak with some lightly-steamed green leafy vegetables and quick-stir-fried bell peppers on the side.

Wonderfully flavourful white artisan bread. Photo © Redberry Sky
Wonderfully flavourful white artisan bread. Photo © Redberry Sky

A Note on Bread

Although wholemeal bread is higher in nutritional value than white, wholemeal bread interferes with iron absorption (as do all wholegrain foods), whereas white bread does not. This is not to say that you shouldn't include wholemeal bread in your diet, but that you might try to eat white bread with your main meals and have wholemeal at other times during the day.

If you already made the switch to wholemeal bread, ordinary white can seem a bit bland and less filling, but there are lots of delicious white breads available – check your local bakery or even the supermarket for made-on-the-premises 'artisan bread', and try ciabatta and french bread sticks.

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    • aa lite profile image

      aa lite 4 years ago from London

      An excuse for me to eat white bread (my number 1 sin), excellent! I was seriously disappointed when I found out that despite my childhood cartoon convictions spinach wasn't actually such a good source of iron because it wasn't absorbed so well from vegetables. But then I don't think it would have been the same if Popeye was shown devouring a rare steak every time he needed his strength.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image

      Gordon Hamilton 4 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Wow - fabulous information, a lot of which I didn't know. I of course knew the value of meats such as beef with regard to iron but not the extent of the value of vegetables, herbs and spices. Funnily enough, I've read a great deal recently about the value of turmeric in our diets from so many different sources and have actually heard it referred to as a superfood. Definitely need to include it more in my repertoire! :)

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Great and useful information. Thank you for this.

    • Redberry Sky profile image
      Author

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Hi aa lite :) I'm a white bread fan too (and Popeye as well, though he never persuaded me to eat my childhood spinach!), and I was delighted to find out that sometimes it can be healthier than wholemeal.

    • Redberry Sky profile image
      Author

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Hi Gordon, I've gone turmeric-nuts in the last year or so, and add a little teaspoon to all my soups and stews (honestly, my kitchen's gone bright yellow where I've managed to spill it over everything). I know you're a fabulous cook, so I'm pleased you're going to experiment with it - looking forward to your ideas on how to use it in recipes :)

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Kay Badder 4 years ago from USA

      I didn't know that Vitamin C helped iron absorption. In the days when I needed more iron, I wish I had read this. There is a lot of info here that I didn't know. I will vote up.

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 4 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      I wish I had known some of this when I was having all of my iron problems! This is truly great information!

    • vibesites profile image

      vibesites 4 years ago from United States

      How about fats found in meats? Do they inhibit iron absorption too?

      This is really a helpful and informative hub... I wonder why sometimes I don't absorb the iron even if I have more than enough stored in my body.

      Up, useful and shared. :)

    • Redberry Sky profile image
      Author

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Thanks everyone - glad it's of use! :)

      vibesites - fat in red meat may promote the absorption of iron, I believe (but this has only been shown in rats so far, I think) :)

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 4 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      Great hub. Very useful information for those who need to introduce more iron into their diet. Don't know if this is true or not, but I've heard that cooking ones meal in cast iron cookware also helps.

      Voted up and useful. Plus CONGRATS on the HOTD award!

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 4 years ago from Scotland

      Interesting article.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great ideas here of including more iron in ones diet you have put the idea well too well together and the photos are so good too.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 4 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      That is interesting. I almost always have coffee, tea or whole grains at meal time. I didn't realize it reduced iron absorption.

      This is a good article, and very useful.

      Congrats on winning HOTD!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Very inspiring hub and I hope many people will read this hub. I learn much here. Thanks for writing and share with us. Voted up!

      Prasetio

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Congrats on HOTD. This is interesting and useful information. Sending Angels to you today :) ps

    • jayshreepattanaik profile image

      JITENDRA 4 years ago from INDIA

      wonderful information .....congrats for HOTD ...

    • Deltachord profile image

      Deltachord 4 years ago from United States

      Interesting article concerning iron. Some good ideas, though I can't agree with all of the ideas in the article. I've been an avid reader of nutritional information since the 1970's.

      One particular point, vitamin C is water soluble and excess just goes out of the body. The problems that high doses cause in some people are minor. There is a section on the minor issues at the link below.

      http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthPr...

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for posting some important info on iron in our diets. I found this hub helpful. Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for a useful post.

    • Redberry Sky profile image
      Author

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Deltachord - the National Institute of Health article you link to agrees with me that there are health risks associated with supplemental (not dietary) high dose vitamin C - in the article it states that "In postmenopausal women with diabetes who participated in the Iowa Women's Health Study, supplemental (but not dietary) vitamin C intake (at least 300 mg/day) was significantly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality" - cardiovascular mortality is not something that I would call 'minor'. I have also seen other research that has found health risks with mega dose Vitamin C. We still don't know the full ramifications, but it would be irresponsible to advocate high doses of supplemental vitamin C when there is evidence that it may prove to have adverse health effects.

    • divacratus profile image

      Kalpana Iyer 4 years ago from India

      Just what I needed to read! Thanks so much for sharing this valuable info. My family and I share this tendency of not including enough iron in our diet and hence most of us are anemic. This page helped a lot. Will definitely keep this in mind when I go grocery shopping next.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 4 years ago from New Jersey

      Congratulations!

      I am glad you went into such detail, like heme versus non-heme sources. Often people think they are eating better and making wise choices. Many times they are, but they end up undoing their good work by not eating right for their body or consuming other things that prevent absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      The links to the recipes are greatly appreciated. :)

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thank you for the reminder about iron deficiency. I remember my doctor telling me that my iron was low once while pregnant. He suggested that I cook in a cast iron skillet. This sounds better!

    • irongrip profile image

      Dan 4 years ago from Canada

      I'm currently taking iron supplements, but with these recipes I don't think I'll be needing them anymore! Thanks for the hub!

    • Redberry Sky profile image
      Author

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Cheers everyone for taking time out to read and comment, 'tis very much appreciated, and I hope the info comes in handy for you :)

    • Deltachord profile image

      Deltachord 4 years ago from United States

      Vitamin C has low toxicity and is not believed to cause serious adverse effects at high intakes [8]. The most common complaints are diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, and other gastrointestinal disturbances due to the osmotic effect of unabsorbed vitamin C in the gastrointestinal tract [4,8].

      This is the quote from that link that I was referring to in my previous comment.

      And I can honestly say that higher doses of vitamin C have helped diminish sinus infections and inflammation and stopped easy brusing for me. Plus, I have never experience any side effects. But each to their own ideas and habits. Happy Trails to you, Redberry Sky.

    • Redberry Sky profile image
      Author

      Redberry Sky 4 years ago

      Deltachord, the pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple. There are persuasive arguments to be had on both sides.

      High dose vitamin C has been linked by several researchers to genetic damage, in studies and experiments going back to the 1970s. There's a nice article about this at the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/09/us/taking-too-mu...

      Vit C has some good, but limited, evidenced health applications. It cures scurvy, obviously, since scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency; it increases absorption of non-heme iron from our diet (which is good if you're deficient in iron, but it can also be bad – too much iron has been found to be an aggravating factor in many diseases, from heart disease to malaria), and it may shorten the duration of the common cold (though the evidence for the last one is still a bit slim).

      When I first became seriously ill many years ago, I took high dose vitamin C for a while, and it had absolutely no effect whatsoever.

      But a few years later, one summer, I fell into eating 20+ portions of fruit and veg every day, and the effect was astonishing. It didn't cure me, but it did alleviate a lot of my long-term symptoms within a couple of weeks. But on the other hand, Apple genius Steve Jobs eschewed medical treatment for his cancer and embarked instead on a fruitarian diet, and died admitting that he regretted it. Linus Pauling, Nobel prizewinner and highly respected scientist, took massive doses of Vitamin C every day for years, convinced that it stopped cancer and cured the common cold – Pauling died of cancer, and much of his work on vitamin C has been widely criticised as being deeply flawed.

      My personal experience by itself doesn't count for anything, and nor does anyone else's. There are too many possible variables. Double-blind placebo-controlled large group studies published in peer-reviewed journals hold more weight, but I still look at them with a critical eye and follow the money back to the funding source and the interests of the people or corporation financing and running the study.

      Research in Maryland has found that vitamin C injections reduce the weight of tumours and stop the spread of cancer in mice – but these exciting results have not yet been found to happen in humans, and other research has found that this kind of high-dose antioxidant treatment may interfere negatively with conventional medical treatments of cancer. A link to the BBC report on this is here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7540822.stm

      Little evidence has been found for medicinal properties of vitamin C beyond curing its own deficiency and aiding iron absorption, so the fact that it is linked to any negative effects whatsoever makes me think that high-dose vitamin C is nothing more than potentially damaging snake oil or a magic pill.

    • coffeegginmyrice profile image

      Marites Mabugat-Simbajon 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

      Very useful and helpful tips, Redberry Sky. My Iron vitamin bottle is empty now but I will be cooking good iron-rich dish tonight.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with followers and on social networking sites. Thanks for this well researched, written, and presented hub.

      As a footnote, I found an article online, "Iron in the Vegan Diet" by Reed Mangels, that says, "Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron, even better on a per calorie basis than meat. Iron absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron. Vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters."

      It looks like there is enough information about vitamin C in the comments for a hub about that.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago

      redberry sky, really nice hub that you have here about making sure you receive more iron in your diet.. i feel that receiving more iron is important and the benefits of it are great. thanks and voted up.

    • kitkat1141 profile image

      kitkat1141 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Very detailed and useful hub. I never knew about whole grains reducing iron absorption. I love cooking on cast iron skillets or griddles. My doctor prescribed Proferrin for me to increase my Iron. He says it absorbs much more easily then regular Iron supplements, and has less gastro-intestinal upset.

    • Peanutritious profile image

      Tara Carbery 4 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      Hi Jane,

      yet another great hub from you. You really do your research and provide lots of valuable information. When I last had a blood test, my iron levels were sky high! I suppose I eat quite healthily (if you ignore the chocolate) and love leafy greens and pulses.

      Voted up and shared!

    • Lisawilliamsj profile image

      Lisa Williams 4 years ago

      This was a very helpful article! My daughter decided she was going to become a vegetarian a couple of months ago, so I am always looking for sources of iron and protein. I did not know that iron in non-heme foods was not absorbed as well has heme foods, so I will definitely have to keep that in mind from now on. Thanks for sharing, I voted up.

    • mariexotoni profile image

      mariexotoni 2 years ago

      I'm bookmarking this article! I've always thought I had a small iron-deficiency and I really wanted to stay away from pills. Thanks for doing wonderful research

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 19 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub my friend. Very informative about adding more iron-enriched foods to your diet.

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