You may wonder why I’m asking you that question. There are two reasons.
One is that I am a huge food nerd and I love to talk about it. The other reason is that, according to the WHO, iron deficiency is the most common deficiency in the world.
Iron deficiency can cause anaemia, which affects around 2 billion people (over 30% of the world’s population!), so it’s definitely worth considering whether or not you get enough iron.
What does iron do in the body?
I bet you remember the word ‘haemoglobin‘ from biology. Well, most iron in the body is found as haemoglobin in blood, and in muscle tissue as myoglobin.
We need iron to create red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body.
Iron is also needed for energy metabolism, immune function, and for synthesis of some neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Some iron is stored in the body. The average male has enough stored for around 3 years, whereas women only keep roughly 6 months’ worth.
However, iron is not made in the body and so must be consumed to be used and stored.
How much do we need?
The recommended daily intake for men is 8.7mg and, for women aged 19-50, 14.8mg.
Women need a much higher intake due to (in general) increased blood loss, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. Which sounds like a bit of a ball-ache at this stage in my life.
I’ve just learned that oral contraceptives tend to decrease blood loss, whereas intrauterine devices tend to increase blood loss. Just as a random, additional fact for ya.
Also, if you donate blood, you might lose up to 250mg of iron in one donation. Which is a fair bit.
For a very long time I have been iron-deficient and have made changes to my diet to try and combat that. Over the years, I’ve taken supplements to try and help as well.
However, I’m not perfect (shocker). So, as much as I try to eat well and make sure I get all my nutrients absolutely spot on every day, it’s actually quite a task.
As I’ve already mentioned, lack of iron can cause anaemia. Some of the most common symptoms of which are shortness of breath, palpitations, pale complexion, and lack of energy.
So, yeah, could explain my extreme pasty-ness and perpetual sleepiness. But then again, that might just be me.
Recently, I’ve felt a real lack of energy and have been struggling to get up in the morning (although helped by my Lumie bodyclock). So I started tracking my food intake again and one of the things that came up repeatedly was that I wasn’t hitting the RDI for iron. Like, not on one single day did I get even close.
So, for a couple of weeks, I’ve made a conscious effort to include more iron-rich foods in my diet and I’m already feeling the difference.
I wake up earlier and actually feel awake as opposed to some kind of groggy zombie. I don’t get that 3pm slump, which means I can be a little more productive through the day. Which makes me less of a pain in the arse to everyone around me. Winner.
Definitely check with your GP, who will probably test your blood, before you go diagnosing yourself with anaemia, but it may be something you want to look into if you have any of the symptoms listed above.
Another indication can be that – and I know this sounds weird – your eye sockets are pale when you pull your lower lid down to have a look.
A word on supplements
A lot of the time, when we think about a deficiency, or even when we think about getting vitamins and minerals into our diet, our automatic response is to go for a supplement.
That may be the right choice for some people. Again, this is something you’d need to discuss with a health professional, especially if you have an existing condition, chronic illness, are pregnant or trying to be, breastfeeding, etc. Etc. Etc.
Supplements can interfere with some medication, and the effect they might have on your body depends on your current health condition.
Side effects can include toxicity from over-use, stomach upset, and constipation. Plus, you may not be absorbing as much as you think.
Having said that, there is a place for supplements, and I have used them myself, and do when I feel I need to.
My go-to brand for supplements are together health, who are a Yorkshire-based company making the most natural supplements I can find. I swore by their vegan omegas for a while, and I’ve recently tried their WholeVit gentle iron & B vitamns.
Where can I get iron?
Where possible, I prefer to use my diet to get what I need, and use supplements as a support if I want to.
With that in mind, these are some of the foods with the highest iron content:
Shellfish e.g. clams, mussels, oysters
Liver and other organ meats
Meat e.g. lamb, beef, chicken and turkey
Legumes e.g. lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, peas
Dark green leafy veg e.g. kale and spinach
Dried figs and apricots
Marmite (or vegemite)
Iron comes in haem and non-haem forms. Plant-based sources contain only non-haem, and meat sources contain both. Haem is more easily absorbed by the body.
You may have seen my recent tweet about how I’d started eating dark chocolate, and this is the reason. Just another example of something I’ve forced myself to eat because it’s good for me. I’m like my own grandma.
If you want to really increase your chances of absorption btw, it’s best to avoid drinking tea and coffee with your iron-rich food, but do include some vitamin C where possible.
Bit of orange juice with your spinach on rye? Load of red pepper with your quinoa salad? That kind of thing.
I’d love to hear from you if you think you might have an iron deficiency, or if you’ve made changes to your diet to try and include more. Or maybe you’re thinking about it now?
Also, do let me know if you like this kind of thing because I love writing about food! So, if it’s useful to you, give me some ideas of what you’d like to read in future and I’ll get to work.
Always speak to your doctor before changing your diet or taking any supplements as they can interfere with medication and the effect will depend on your current health etc.