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Feeling sluggish? Here's a foolproof guide to fitting more iron rich foods into your diet.

Iron is an essential nutrient that we all need in our diets.

From playing a role in red blood cells by transporting oxygen around the body to providing much-needed energy for daily activity, iron plays an important role in a number of bodily functions.

But while our need for iron is undeniably high, according to the World Health Organisation, iron deficiency is a global health problem of “epidemic proportions”.

In fact, iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutrient deficiency worldwide.

With a lack of iron known to lead to fatigue, headaches and even shortness of breath, it’s important to look at incorporating more iron rich foods into our diet.

To learn more about the importance of iron and how to up our daily intake of iron rich foods, we spoke to nutritionist and chef Zoe Bingley-Pullin.

Here’s what she had to say.

What is iron and why is it important?

Iron is an important mineral that’s required in our bodies to assist the proper function of hemoglobin.

Put simply, hemoglobin is a protein needed to transport oxygen in the blood.

Besides assisting in the transportation of oxygen around the body, iron also has an essential role in DNA synthesis, the production of energy and breathing.

“Iron is involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, immune function and skin and nail formation,” Zoe told Mamamia.

In children, iron is especially essential for the developing brain. Children who have iron deficiency with or without anaemia in infancy can suffer from long term negative affects on their brain function and even their behaviour.

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What happens to my body if I don’t consume enough iron?

Not consuming enough iron can have a serious impact on our body’s ability to function normally.

“If we don’t consume enough iron and become deficient in iron and if not corrected, we can develop a condition called iron deficiency anaemia,” Zoe explained.

“If this occurs, red blood cell production reduces and we can’t adequately transport oxygen throughout the body,” she added.

When our body becomes low in iron, there are common symptoms that tell us we’re in need of the mineral.

From our energy levels to our concentration to even our skin colour, iron deficiency can be picked up in a number of ways.

According to nutritionist Zoe, common symptoms of iron deficiency can include poor concentration, impaired memory, decreased immune function and shortness of breath with minimal exertion and decreased sports performance.

Other symptoms may include fatigue, headaches, dizziness, pale skin and fingernails, weakness and difficulty maintaining body temperature.

During pregnancy, the need for iron increases even more.

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Although women are generally recommended to consume 18 milligrams of iron per day, this increases to 27 milligrams during pregnancy to support additional red blood cells, the placenta and the baby.

If you’re concerned about your iron intake, it’s important to consult your GP.

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What are some of the best sources of iron?

When we think about the best iron rich foods, our mind often goes straight to lean red meat.

But thankfully for vegetarians and vegans, there are still loads of other iron rich food sources out there.

Iron is obtained in the form of both haem iron and non-haem iron sources. While haem iron sources are predominately found in animal products, non-haem iron sources tend to be plant-based.

It’s believed haem iron sources are typically absorbed by the body at a higher rate when compared to non-haem iron sources.

Zoe recommended a number of haem and non-haem iron rich foods that are perfect for upping your daily intake of iron.

Haem iron sources include kidney and liver, oysters, beef, lamb, veal, chicken, sardines, canned salmon, clams and egg yolks.

On the other hand, plant-based iron rich sources include cashews and pine nuts, lentils, soy beans, chickpeas, rolled oats, tahini, dried apricots, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dried prunes and green leafy vegetables.

iron rich foods
Red meat isn't the only source of iron. Chickpeas, cashews, pine nuts and green leafy vegetables are all great iron rich foods. Image: Getty.

The recommended dietary intake for iron differs depending on age and gender. Here's a guide on how many milligrams you should be consuming each day:

  • All children aged 1-3: 7mg per day
  • All children aged 4-8: 10mg per day
  • Females aged 9-13: 8mg per day
  • Females aged 14-18: 15mg per day
  • Females aged 19-50: 18mg per day
  • Females aged over 51: 8mg per day
  • Pregnant women: 27mg per day
  • Lactating women: 9mg per day
  • Men aged 9-13: 8mg per day
  • Men aged 14-18: 11mg per day
  • Men aged over 19: 8mg per day

People following a vegetarian or vegan diet should consult their doctor to consider whether their daily recommended intake of iron should increase.

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How can I increase the absorption of iron from iron rich foods?

The foods you eat also play a part in how well iron is absorbed into your body.

"Eating iron rich foods alongside a source of ascorbic acid (e.g. vitamin C) can help to increase iron absorption," Zoe explained.

"For example, if you're having a steak, pair it with a salad with tomato, capsicum and lemon juice. Or if you're having a tofu stir-fry, add some cauliflower and capsicum," she added.

Foods containing fructose and sorbitol, such as apples and pears, can also help to increase iron absorption when paired with iron rich foods.

But while some foods can aid iron absorption, others can hinder it.

According to Zoe, avoiding certain foods at the same time as eating foods rich in iron is important.

Examples include tea and coffee (due to their tannin content), spinach, berries and chocolate (due to their oxalic acid content), excessive calcium and phytates found in wholegrains and legumes.

iron rich foods
Foods including spinach, berries and chocolate can hinder iron absorption. Image: Getty.

Who should take iron supplements?

As tempting as it may be to self-diagnose, when it comes to iron deficiency or anaemia, it’s really important that you don’t. Taking iron supplements when you don’t need them can be dangerous.

Although problems can be caused by too little iron, problems can also be caused by too much iron as well.

If you believe you're experiencing symptoms of iron deficiency, it's important to consult your doctor for advice.

Groups more likely to be affected by iron deficiency include teenage girls, vegetarians and vegans, athletes, regular blood donors, menstruating women, those with chronic diseases and those with inflammatory bowel disease or coeliac disease.

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