Iron is needed by our bodies to carry oxygen around the body. It is part of haemoglobin in the blood and myoglobin in the muscles and helps in immune function, cognitive development, temperature regulation and energy metabolism. Low oxygen environments leave us very vulnerable as disease thrives in anaerobic environments so getting enough iron in our diets is very important.
Most of the iron in our body is conserved and reused, and what’s left is then excreted. The iron that’s excreted needs to be replenished daily otherwise our iron stores get depleted. This depletion is greater in menstruating women than in men, which is why many women become iron deficient, or anaemic. Iron deficiency anaemia is caused by insufficient iron in the body, which means that the body can’t produce enough haemoglobin to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues.
There are two forms of dietary iron, haem and non-haem. Haem iron is typically found in animal foods that originally contained haemoglobin such as red meats, fish and poultry. This is the most absorbable form of iron. The iron content of vegetarian diets is typically similar to that of non-vegetarians but is less bio-available. It is recommended that vegetarians ensure that their diet includes good sources of vitamin C when they eat iron-rich foods as this helps with absorption.
Care should be taken when taking supplemental iron as these can cause constipation and digestive dysfunction. Look for supplements that are in the forms of ferrous fumarate or ferrous gluconate rather than the more common ferrous sulphate, which are gentle on the digestive system.
Food sources of iron include: beef and chicken liver, kidney, clams, oysters, poultry, sardines, wheat germ, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts, spinach, broccoli, avocado, apricots, soybeans, tofu and cooked beans.
Check out the recipes in on our website for some ideas and inspiration on how to increase your iron intake.
Key, T.J., Appleby, P.N., and Rosell, M.S. (2006) Health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. [Online] 65, 35–41. Available from: http://www.martinfrost.ws/htmlfiles/july2008/epic_veg.pdf [Accessed on 3rd May 2012].
Osiecki, H. (no date) The nutrient bible. 7th Edition. Australia, Bio Concepts Publishing.
Weinberg, E.D. (1999) Iron loading and disease surveillance. Emerging infectious diseases. [Online] 5, 3. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2640766/pdf/10341171.pdf [Accessed 3rd May 2012]