Iron is a vital nutrient. In our diets, red meats are the richest source; it is also
found in oily fish, the dark meat of chicken and turkey and in some nuts, seeds, dried
fruits, dark green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals.

The World Health Organization estimates that 600 – 700 million people are
deficient in iron, probably making it the most common nutritional deficiency disorder in
the world, in particular in developing countries. While in some of these countries, blood
loss (i.e. caused by infestation with hook worms) can be the main cause of the problem, in
western Europe, iron deficiency is usually a result of not getting enough of this mineral
in the daily diet.

The effects of poor iron intake are far reaching. Iron is needed for haemoglobin (the
red pigment in blood) to work properly and carry oxygen to all the body’s cells. One
of the first signs of low iron intake is tiredness and fatigue. Women and young girls who
eat little meat, poultry and fish or who turn completely vegetarian are particularly at
risk of running down the body’s iron reserves and experiencing symptoms of deficiency.

While approximately 8% of women are estimated to be iron deficient in the west, Dr Mike
Nelson, a nutritionist at King’s College, London University, believes that between 10
– 20 % of younger girls are affected. Although these girls often appear to be in good
health, low iron levels profoundly affect many aspects of their day to day lives,
including an ability to concentrate, and thus learn, in school. Nelson tells us, “In
tests we have carried out we think that the IQ in British girls who get enough iron in
their diets and those who are anaemic can mean the difference of a whole grade in school

“Girls who are dieting and those switching to a vegetarian diet are particularly
at risk”, explains Nelson: “New vegetarians need to be very careful in the first
year of conversion because they often cut out meat and don’t know how to replace the
iron with other foods. Women and girls who diet and go vegetarian at the same time should
think about eating iron fortified foods or even taking a modest supplement”.

Increasing iron intakes in this way could make all the difference for youngsters and
adults, from the schoolroom to the boardroom. It is known that a lack of iron leads to
impairment of brain functioning, affecting both memory and learning abilities.

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It is not only the brain that suffers from low iron intakes. Pregnant women and older
people also need to take special care. During pregnancy if iron stores are already low,
the increased demands made by the quickly growing baby in the last six months of pregnancy
may tip the balance and throw the expectant mother into a deficiency state, adversely
affecting the growth of the infant’s brain. Older people can suffer through poor diets
combined with an ageing digestive tract that finds it harder to absorb the iron that is
present in foods.

Whatever the age and sex of the individual, eventually it leads to a lowering of the
pain threshold, an interference with the body’s temperature control mechanisms, an
increased likelihood of hairloss and a decrease in the strength of the immune system,
making us more vulnerable to infections. Clearly, there are many reasons for keeping an
eye on daily iron intakes.

Finding Out if you are Iron Deficient

Feeling constantly tired
and looking pale are symptoms that may indicate you are running low on iron in your diet
and have reached the point of iron deficiency. To find out if this is the cause of these
symptoms, the doctor will need to perform a blood test to measure levels of haemoglobin.
He will be able to diagnose whether you are at risk of iron deficiency or have already
developed iron deficiency anaemia.

Boosting Iron Intakes – Top Foods for Iron


Serving size

Iron supplied

Lean beef 150g 6mg
Baked beans 200g 5mg
Canned Sardines 100g 5mg
Breakfast Cereals
(check the label)
30-45g 4mg
Dried figs 4 3mg
Dark turkey meat 120g 2mg
Sesame seeds 20g 2mg
Spring greens steamed 90g 1mg


Iron Absorption

The body absorbs approximately 25% of the iron
in meat, fish and poultry. However, absorption of iron from cereals, vegetables and fruits
is significantly lower. Iron absorption in these foods is improved if eaten at the same
time as:

  • Vitamin C in citrus fruits, berries, kiwi fruit, peppers and potatoes
  • Fructose in fruits and fruit juices
  • Meat and fish protein

Iron absorption is lowered when eaten with the following foods. Try to eat these
separately from iron rich foods:

  • Eggs
  • Bran
  • Tea