- Iron is an essential mineral your body needs to stay healthy.
- You get your iron from the food you eat.
- Haem iron from animal-based foods is easier to absorb, but high amounts of red meat increase your risk of heart disease and bowel cancer.
- Non-haem iron, from plant-based food, is a valuable source of dietary iron.
- Some people have a higher risk of low iron levels.
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Why you need iron
Iron is an essential nutrient your body needs to stay healthy. Iron helps your red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to your tissues, skin and muscles. You need iron to build a healthy immune system and have the energy you need to live a healthy life.
Signs of low iron
If you have low iron levels, you might experience:
- loss of appetite
- poor exercise performance
- shortness of breath
There are 3 stages of low iron levels:
- iron depletion
- iron deficiency
- iron deficiency anaemia.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies. It can happen if your body doesn’t absorb enough iron from your daily diet or you have higher iron needs. A higher need for iron can happen from:
- for females during their reproductive years and during pregnancy
- blood loss such as heavy menstrual periods
- frequent blood donation
- bleeding in stomach or bowels that may happen as a result of taking anti-inflammatory medications.
If you're worried about your iron levels, speak to your doctor. A GP can check your iron with a simple blood test.
How dietary iron works
Dietary iron is the iron you get from the food you eat. Your body can’t make iron. That's why it's important to eat iron-rich foods to give your body the iron it needs.
Your body needs iron every day, and the best way for your body to get iron is to absorb it from the food you eat.
In most cases, your body can regulate itself to absorb the right amount of iron it needs.
As your iron levels get lower, your body gets better at absorbing iron and excreting less.
Types of dietary iron
There are 2 types of dietary iron:
- haem iron
- non-haem iron.
Haem iron comes from animal-based foods and is easier for the body to absorb.
While haem iron is easier to absorb, eating a diet high in haem iron from red meat sources can increase your risk of heart disease and bowel cancer. For that reason, it is recommend limiting red meat intake to a maximum of 455 grams a week.
Non-haem iron comes from plant-based food and isn’t as easy for the body to absorb.
Although non-haem iron is a little harder to absorb, it’s easier for the body to regulate its intake. This means your body can choose to absorb more or less of this type of iron, depending on what it needs.
Iron overload, or haemochromatosis, is a hereditary condition. It causes people to absorb and store too much iron in their body.
Usually, your body can safely store excess iron. But people with haemochromatosis can be at risk of organ damage and type 2 diabetes if they store too much iron.
If you have haemochromatosis, talk to your doctor about managing your iron levels.
People most at risk of low iron
The amount of iron you need depends on your age and gender.
Low iron levels can happen for many reasons, including:
- eating foods low in dietary iron
- poor absorption of iron
- significant blood loss
- using more iron than usual during times of growth or exercise.
Some people are more at risk of low iron levels.
Although people often think vegetarians have a higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia, most of the literature shows this isn't true. Vegetarians who eat a balanced, healthy diet usually aren't at any greater risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia, although they do tend to have lower iron stores.
Those most at risk of low iron levels include:
- people who have periods
- people aged over 75
- people who are pregnant
- people with some chronic health conditions.
- People who have periods
People who have periods are more likely to have an iron deficiency because they usually need a lot more iron than those who don't, particularly during pregnancy. People who menstruate are also at higher risk because of blood loss.
Athletes often have low iron levels. This is because they need more iron for oxygen delivery and muscle recovery. An athlete might also have a restricted diet, which can be lower in iron
- Infancy, adolescence and pregnancy
People going through a stage of fast body growth need more iron. This means infants, adolescents and pregnant people can be at risk of low iron levels.
- People aged over 75
People over 75 have a higher rate of iron deficiency anaemia than other Australians.
- Chronic conditions
People who have conditions such as coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis are also at risk of low iron. These conditions can prevent the body from absorbing iron.
If you have iron deficiency anaemia, your doctor might recommend you take an iron supplement. Iron supplements can have various side effects and interfere with other medications. Always see your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian before taking an iron supplement.
Sources of dietary iron
Many people think dietary iron only comes from red meat. Yet there are many iron-rich foods, including animal-based, plant-based and iron-fortified foods.
Haem iron comes from animal-based foods and is easy for your body to absorb.
Non-haem iron comes from plant-based foods and is a little harder to absorb.
Foods with non-haem iron are a valuable source of dietary iron and should be part of a healthy and well-balanced diet. In fact, most of the iron in the Australian diet comes from plant-based foods such as grains and vegetables. Even for meat-eaters.
Foods high in iron
These iron-rich foods can help your body get the iron it needs:
- Dried apricots
- Iron-fortified cereals
- Leafy green vegetables (for example, spinach, silverbeet, kale, green salad leaves)
- Legumes (for example, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- Red meat
- Offal (liver, kidney, pate)
- Nuts (for example, almonds and cashews)
- Wholegrain bread and cereals.
Read food labels to find out how much iron is in your food. You can also search for the iron levels of foods in the Australian Food Composition Database.
Eating to increase iron absorption
The way you eat and what you eat together can help increase your iron absorption.
- If taking calcium supplements, make sure you take these at least one hour before or after a meal as they can interfere with iron absorption.
- Avoid tea, coffee and red wine with meals because they can reduce iron absorption from foods.
- Eat foods containing vitamin C with your meals to help break down iron-rich foods for better absorption. Foods with vitamin C include citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwifruit, pawpaw, melon, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, broccoli and capsicum.
- Eat meat and vegetables together to increase the amount of iron you absorb from your vegetables.
Iron-rich meal ideas
Try our delicious iron-packed menu to see how easy it is to get more iron into your daily diet.
We recommend seeing a dietitian if you:
- are worried about how much iron you're getting from your food
- want to know how much iron you need at your stage of life
- need advice on how to get the right amount of iron into your diet
- want to know more about how your body uses iron from food.
Accredited Practising Dietitians (APDs) are university-trained nutrition experts. They can help you with personalised, easy-to-follow and evidence-based advice.
APDs are Australia's most trusted dietetics professionals.
- Read food labels so you know how much iron is in your food.
- Eat many different types of iron-rich foods, including plant-based foods.
- Choose foods rich in vitamin C to eat with main meals because they increase iron absorption.
- See a dietitian for personalised advice on getting the iron you need from your diet.
- Don't self-prescribe iron supplements - only take them on medical advice.
- See your doctor if you're worried about your iron levels.