How to Include More Iron in Your Diet
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
Some of the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
- 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!
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.
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.