BLOG BY Sarah Jackson BSc PGCert RNutr

What Is Iron & Why Is It Important?

Many nutrient requirements change throughout our lifespan and iron is no exception, not only are there different requirements at different ages, requirements also change between genders. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies with over 2 billion people in the world suffering from anaemia. This article will explore these recommendations helping you identify your daily intake and discover food sources that are rich in iron. 

What is iron?

Iron is a mineral that has many different roles within the body. Iron is needed for cell growth and production of red blood cells, the haemoglobin in these red blood cells then transports oxygen around the body. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) state that iron is also an essential component in many enzyme reactions, helping to maintain the health of immune cells therefore, having an important role in supporting the immune system.

Dietary iron:

There are two main sources of dietary iron; haem iron which is found in animal-based food and non-haem iron which is found in plant-based foods. Haem iron is the most bioavailable form of iron with rich sources being red meat; beef, lamb and pork. However, even though haem iron is the most bioavailable, non-haem iron is the predominant source in our diets through foods such as cereals, pulses, beans, nuts, fruit and vegetables.

It is important to understand that non-haem iron can be affected by different foods potentially reducing the absorption rate. Phytate, fibre, tannins (in tea) and calcium can all bind to non-haem iron in the intestine resulting in low absorption rates however, eating foods rich in vitamin C such as fruit and vegetables can support the absorption when eaten at the same time. For example, teaming a small glass of orange juice and topping your porridge and fortified milk with seeds and berries may help aid absorption.

For meat eaters this isn’t so difficult as haem iron can increase the absorption of non-haem therefore, a balanced plate including red meat and green leafy vegetables can have a positive effect on iron absorption.

Iron deficiency:

Iron deficiencies occur when a lack of dietary iron results in a deplete in iron stores in the body. Mild anaemia symptoms are often feeling tired, lacking energy, shortness of breath and sometimes an increased risk of infection. More severe iron deficiency symptoms are heart palpitations, brittle nails, itchy skin and mouth ulcers developing.

Population groups that are more at risk of iron deficiency are woman of a childbearing age and teenage girls (those that have a monthly cycle) as you can see from the table below their requirements are higher than those of men the same age. The national diet and nutrition survey (NDNS) indicate that women are below the reference nutrient intake (RNI) and that younger woman are below the lower reference nutrient intake (LRNI) resulting in intakes being inadequate.

Although women of a childbearing age require more iron, there is currently no need to increase intake during pregnancy. The BNF state that the extra demand can be supported by pre-existing stores and the lack of menstrual blood loss.

Recommended intake for different groups:

The British Dietetic Association provide a guide to help us recognise the different requirements of iron per day:

Infants: 0-3 months 1.7mg, 4-6 months 4.3mg and 7-12months 7.8mg

Children: 1-3 years 6.9mg, 4-6 years 6.1mg and 7-10 years 8.7mg

Adolescents: 11-18 years 14.8mg for girls and 11.3mg for boys

Adults: 19-50 years 14.8mg for women, 8.7mg for men and 50+ years 8.7mg

Foods rich in iron:

• Animal products which are high in iron include; beef, pork, lamb, liver, sausages and eggs with some fish including mackerel, tinned tuna and prawns contain small amounts.

• Plant-based sources of iron include; baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, tofu, figs, almonds, brazil nuts, peanut butter, sesames seeds, sunflower seeds and green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.

• Fruit and vegetables to team with the plant-based sources of iron (high in vitamin C) include; kale, cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, oranges, broccoli, mango, red peppers (some are a source of iron too!)

What does a female’s daily recommendation of 14.8mg of dietary iron look like?

Breakfast – 40g bran flakes with milk and a handful of berries

Lunch – Half a tin of baked beans on wholegrain toast with sautéed spinach

Dinner – Beef or mixed bean chilli with broccoli, peppers and carrots served with rice

Snacks – a handful of dried fruit and nuts

*please note this is just an example not a recommended food plan

Useful Top Tips:

• Make your plate balanced and colourful, full of a variety of vegetables

• Try a small amount of dried fruit for dessert such as apricots/figs

• Add beans/pulses with meat in stews, curries, pasta dishes

• Sprinkle seeds such as sesame or sunflower on meals for example: salads, porridge or stir fry

• Opt for fortified foods such as milks and cereals (always check the label, is iron fortified?)

• Seek help from a Registered professional if you think you maybe deficient in iron.

This blog post was written by Sarah Jackson, a Registered and SENr Sports Nutritionist with a BSc (hons) in Public Health Nutrition and PG Cert Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Sarah works in the food industry and has a private clinical practise in Manchester. Sarah’s passion is to help people optimise nutrition for long term health goals, as well as working with individuals and teams in sports nutrition to enhance performance. You can find her on Instagram @sarahjnutrition and her website nutribloom.co.uk

References:

• British Dietetic Association: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/iron-rich-foods-iron-deficiency.html

• British Nutrition Foundation: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/helpingyoueatwell/veganandvegetarian.html?limit=1&start=12

• NDNS Survey: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/772434/NDNS_UK_Y1-9_report.pdf

NHS – Iron in your diet food sources: http://www.swbh.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Iron-in-your-diet-ML3395.pdf

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