The Nutrient Series – Iron

Over the next few months I will write some posts on the essential nutrients that we need to maintain good health, interspersed with posts on other subjects, maybe including a couple of recipes!

One nutrient that I often get asked about is iron, so I thought I would write the first post about that.


Why do we need iron?

Haemoglobin is the component found in red blood cells which carries oxygen around the body. Iron is an essential part of the haemoglobin structure, which is a key reason why iron deficiency can cause tiredness, as it means less oxygen is transported to the muscles when needed.

Iron is also contained in enzymes involved in muscle contraction (our muscles contract every time we use them).

Children would have fairly high requirements as iron is also needed for tissue growth and development.


How much should we be consuming?

Men and women need different amounts of iron in their diet due to the blood loss that females experience during menstruation.


The following requirements are for adults aged 19-50 years;

Males: 8.7 mg per day

Females: 14.8 mg per day

(Everyone over 50 years should consume 8.7 mg per day)


The requirements for teenagers (11-18 years);

Males: 11.3 mg per day

Females: 14.8 mg per day

(Dietary Reference Values)


Good sources of iron

There are two types of iron; haem and non-haem. Haem iron is present in animal products and is best absorbed. Non-haem iron comes from plant sources, and although it isn’t as well absorbed as haem iron, our bodies can still absorb it and vegetarian diets can provide enough iron.


The following foods are good sources of iron;

  • Meat, especially red meat such as beef
  • Fortified cereals and cereal products
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Green-leafy vegetables, such as kale or watercress
  • Wholegrains such as brown rice
  • Dried fruit, such as dried apricots


There are some foods which can help our bodies absorb the iron from our food;

  • Vitamin C – found in oranges and other fruits
  • Citric acid – present in oranges and other citrus fruits
  • Beta-carotene – present in brightly coloured fruit and veg such as carrots
  • Alcohol (only a small amount needed!)

And other foods can slightly inhibit the absorption of iron, such as caffeine.

So, drinking a glass of orange juice in the morning with your breakfast cereals, but avoiding the coffee until a bit later will optimise your iron absorption. And drinking a small glass of red wine with your steak in the evening will do the same!


How much do I need to eat to get my recommended daily intake?

A typical day may look like this;

Breakfast 30g Bran flakes, 125ml semi-skimmed milk & 150ml orange juice ≈5 mg
Mid-am snack 20g almonds & 30g dried apricots ≈1.85 mg
Lunch Tuna with raw spinach sandwich on brown bread


≈3 mg
Mid-pm snack 125 ml plain yoghurt with 80g blueberries and 15g sunflower seeds ≈1 mg
Dinner Beef mince spaghetti bolognaise with wholegrain pasta ≈4.4 mg
  TOTAL ≈15.25 mg

(McCance & Widdowson’s Composition of Foods)

The Department of Health says that any intake below 17 mg per day is safe for most people – but your daily intake of iron wouldn’t necessarily always be this high, it should just average out over the week.


Iron deficiency

If you are consistently not consuming enough iron, your body’s stores of it start getting empty and this could cause iron deficiency anaemia. This may make you feel tired, sluggish and run down and give you a pale complexion. If you are worried about being anaemic, you should go and speak to your doctor.


Can you have too much iron?

A high dose of iron is considered more than 20 mg per day (NHS Choices). You may experience constipation and nausea. Most people consume the right amount of iron in a normal healthy diet.


But please remember that everyone is slightly different, and these recommendations have been published for the general public. Some individuals may have different needs and should be advised accordingly by a dietitian or doctor.




Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom, DoH, 1991

Iron and Health, SACN,

McCance and Widdowson’s Composition of Foods integrated dataset, PHE,

Molecular Basis of Human Nutrition, Tom Sanders and Peter Emery, 2003

NHS Choices,




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