What is Iron?

iron facts

Iron is a dietary mineral that is important for various bodily functions, including the transport of oxygen in the blood^1. Low levels in the body can decrease your body’s ability to use energy efficiently during normal daily activities.

iron facts

Iron is a mineral that is essential to blood production and your health. About 70 percent of your body’s iron is found in the red blood cells of your blood and in muscle cells^2. Red blood cells transport oxygen from your lungs to your body tissue and muscles which helps to provide energy for daily life.

iron facts

Iron also plays an essential role in immune system function^3. The role of iron in a healthy immune system is necessary for immune cells proliferation and maturation, associated with the production of a particular response to infection.

iron facts

Iron is thought to be lost from the body through inefficient absorption, gastrointestinal disruption, the bleeding of the gastrointestinal tract and blood loss. The ABS has established that 40% of Australian women in their reproductive age suffer from insufficient iron intake^4.

Iron Types

Heme Iron

Heme iron is the type of iron found in blood and muscle. Heme iron comes from animal proteins in our diet and is found only in meat, poultry, seafood and fish. It is understood that the body absorbs heme iron more readily than non-heme iron.

Non-Heme Iron

Non-heme iron is found in plant foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens such as spinach. Non-heme iron is also found in foods such as beans and lentils and in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.

Iron Absorption

The average person needs to absorb just a small amount of iron each day to stay healthy. However, to achieve this, we need to consume several times that amount. This is because our bodies absorb only a fraction of the iron contained in the foods we eat^5.

Factors Which Impact Iron Absorption

There are dietary factors that can influence the absorption of iron. Absorption enhancing elements include ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and meat, fish and poultry. Substances that inhibit iron absorption include plant components such as tea, coffee, chocolate (e.g. polyphenols, phytates) and calcium. Fibre and eggs are also foods that can impair the absorption of iron. Vitamin C is a key ingredient which enhances the absorption of dietary iron in the body. It captures non-heme iron and stores it in a form that is more easily absorbed by your body^6.

Tips to help improve iron absorption:

  • Consume foods high in vitamin C with foods that contain iron
  • Avoid drinking coffee, tea or consuming high calcium foods during or directly after consuming iron
  • Cook your plant foods to improve the amount of available iron

Folic Acid & Iron

Both folate and iron play a part in the formation of healthy blood cells^7. Folate is required for DNA maturation in the blood cells and iron is necessary to produce haemoglobin.

Folic Acid & Iron

Both folate and iron play a part in the formation of healthy blood cells^7. Folate is required for DNA maturation in the blood cells and iron is necessary to produce haemoglobin.

Risk Factor

The following groups of people have a higher risk of insufficient iron intake:

women

Women

Due to loss of blood during their menstrual cycle, women are more at risk of a deficiency in iron.

vegetarians/vegans

Vegetarians/Vegans

People who don’t eat meat usually have a greater risk in iron if they don’t eat enough heme iron rich foods.

children and infants

Children and Infants

Children require extra iron as they are growing rapidly. Infants who do not get enough iron from breast milk or formula are also at risk.

frequent blood donation

Frequent Blood Donation

People who regularly give blood as blood donations can reduce their iron stores. Ensure you are consulting your health professional before you give blood.

How to Support Sufficient Iron Intake

Consuming a variety of iron rich foods will help support sufficient iron intake in your body.

Red meat & pork

Poultry

Seafood

Beans

Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach

Dried fruit, such as raisins & apricots

Non-fortified cereals, breads & pastas

Peas

This medicine may not be right for you. Read the label before purchase. If symptoms persist consult your health practitioner

Daily Supplements

Another good way of ensuring you have sufficient intake of iron is to use a supplement daily. However, this should not replace a balanced diet. Taking a supplement that contains folic acid can further assist with the production of red blood cells.

Your body absorbs more iron from Heme iron (animal sources) than it does from other sources (plant sources). If you choose to not eat meat, you may need to increase your intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods to absorb the same amount of iron as does someone who eats meat. An iron supplement is shown to be beneficial for vegans and vegetarians for this reason, to ensure you are getting sufficient iron that you may not be getting from your diet.

1. Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Iron [Government Legislation]. Nutrient Reference Values. 2014. Available from: https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/iron

2. Gupta C. Role of Iron (Fe) in Body. IOSR Journal of Applied Chemistry. 2014;7(11):38-46.

3. Ward, R.J., Crichton, R.R., Taylor, D.L. et al. Iron and the immune system. J Neural Transm 118, 315–328 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00702-010-0479-3

4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12 [Internet]. Abs.gov.au. 2012. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/...

4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12 [Internet]. Abs.gov.au. 2012. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.008~2011-12~Main%20Features~Iron~402

5. The paragraph is taken from the section "Recommended dietary iron intakes" : https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/iron

6. Hurrell R, Egli I. Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(5):1461S-1467S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2010.28674F

7. Abbaspour, Nazanin et al. “Review on iron and its importance for human health.” Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences vol. 19,2 (2014): 164-74.