Eating For Iron
Answered by Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
I’ve recently been diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia and am taking iron tablets three times a day. My doctor has suggested I eat liver and eggs but I don’t like either of these. What other iron-rich foods can I eat without ruining my diet?
Iron deficiency anaemia is one of the most common nutritional problems in the UK and is caused by a lack of iron in the diet. Recent statistics show that 40% of women under the age of 34 have seriously low intakes of iron and are at risk of anaemia as a result. Teenage girls and pre-menopausal women are at particular risk as they have higher nutritional needs for iron than men and post-menopausal women due to losses during menstruation. However, people who follow a vegetarian diet may also be at risk as these diets are typically low in iron-rich foods.
Iron is needed to make red blood cells and is a vital component of haemoglobin, which gives blood its colour and transports oxygen around the body to the cells. A low iron intake means haemoglobin levels drop with the result that the blood carries insufficient oxygen to the cells –this is what’s known as iron deficiency anaemia. Typical symptoms, which you’ve probably already experienced, include extreme tiredness, fatigue, breathlessness on light exertion, dizzy spells and an unnaturally pale complexion.
As you’ve already discovered, liver and liver products such as pate and black pudding are good sources of iron, as are eggs. However, as you don’t like these foods, it’s important to find other rich sources of iron. Red meat, especially beef, is a great source and it’s also reasonably low in calories and fat. In fact, an 8oz grilled rump steak provides just 289 calories and 9.6g fat, but 4.1mg iron – that’s more than a quarter of the iron needed by most women. Mackerel, sardines and other oily fish also contain iron, and although they’re higher in fat and calories than white fish, they’re packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fats making them a good choice for slimmers and healthy eaters. In fact, the Food Standards Agency recommends that everyone should eat at least one portion a week. Other good sources include bread, green leafy vegetables, peas, lentils, dried fruit and breakfast cereals. All these foods are low in fat and can easily be incorporated into a weight loss plan, making them good choices if you’re slimming.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the iron in animal foods such as red meat and oily fish is more easily absorbed and used by the body than the iron in plant foods such as vegetables and bread. Vitamin C also helps the body to absorb iron from food, so you should eat vitamin C-rich foods and iron-rich foods together eg. a glass of orange juice with a bowl of breakfast cereal or a tomato with an egg sandwich. In contrast, the absorption of iron is reduced by the presence of tannins in tea and phytates in unrefined cereals such as raw bran. This means you shouldn’t drink tea with meals and avoid sprinkling raw bran onto breakfast cereals.
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