5 ways to maximise your iron intake

These simple tactics – including some great food pairings – can help ramp up your iron intake and boost your energy levels.

About 1.5 million Australians visit their doctor each year seeking help with fatigue. 

While there are many causes, tiredness can be a sign of iron deficiency.

Haematologist Associate Professor Chris Barnes says the link between iron and energy levels is strong. 

“If you are iron deficient there is a strong correlation between lethargy, irritability and mood,” Assoc Prof Barnes says.

Iron’s role in the body

Iron is an essential mineral but your body can’t make it – you have to get it by consuming animal and plant foods. 

Its main role is in red blood cell production

When you are iron deficient, your body has trouble carrying oxygen to your cells.

What causes iron deficiency?

Assoc Prof Barnes says iron is generally a “heavily conserved nutrient”.

“Once you’ve got iron in your body the only way you really get rid of it is through bleeding,” he says. 

But it’s estimated that one in four Australian women has low iron levels, compared with one in 30 men.

He says poor nutrition and blood loss are the primary causes of iron deficiency – and often it’s a combination of both, particularly among menstruating females.

“If their periods are too heavy they should consider seeing a professional,” Prof Barnes says. 

“But if you’re having a period it’s essential to have a diet that’s rich in iron.” 

Dietitian Melanie McGrice says the typical Aussie diet is high in discretionary or treat foods such as ice cream and potato chips, which contain negligible iron.

“These are bumping iron-rich foods out of the way,” Melanie, of Dietitians Australia, says.

How to boost your iron intake.

Melanie says generally, a nourishing diet full of green leafy veggies, wholegrains, lean proteins and nuts and seeds is the key to maintaining iron levels.

Following these strategies can help combat low iron.

Focus on the right type of iron 

Iron comes in two forms, heme and non-heme. 

Heme iron is the most easily absorbed form and is found in red meat, dark meat poultry (legs and thighs), liver, pork and fish. 

The body absorbs two to three times more iron from animal sources than from plant sources.

Combining both forms of iron helps with absorption

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, fortified cereals, grains, rice, egg yolks and beans are good sources of non-heme iron.

Science has shown having food with heme iron alongside non-heme sources helps improve the absorption of non-heme iron.

Turn to superstar iron-rich foods

Melanie recommends adding these ingredients to any meal for an automatic iron boost. 

  • Sesame seeds: 14.6g per 100g
  • Broccoli: 2/3 cup contains 1mg, also rich in vitamin C
  • Rice: 2.8mg per cup
  • Kangaroo: 2.6mg per 65g serve
  • Muesli: 3.5mg per ½ cup 

Take vitamin C with your iron

Vitamin C also enhances iron absorption, and just half a cup of orange juice is enough. 

Citrus fruit, capsicum, strawberries, cantaloupe and broccoli all contain vitamin C, which gives rise to some delicious food pairings.

Try adding capsicum to a bean salad, having steak with an orange and fennel salad or enjoying fortified cereal with a serve of berries.

Cooking plant foods can also help improve the amount of available iron they contain.

Watch your beverage consumption

Avoid drinking coffee, tea, or red wine with your meals or with iron supplements.

These beverages contain tannins, polyphenols and phytates, which decrease the absorption of iron.

Have them between meals instead. 

Written by Liz McGrath and Kerem Doruk.