Iron deficiency is common, particularly in women. It is an essential mineral, and one of its many roles is to make red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Too little iron in the body can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which can make us feel tired and lethargic.
Food sources of iron include meat, beans, dried fruit, nuts, dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, wholegrain foods and liver. However, there are two forms of dietary iron, haem iron (from animal sources, e.g. meat) and non-haem iron (from plant sources, e.g. nuts, veg, beans). Haem iron is more bioavailable than non-haem, i.e. it’s easier to absorb. In addition, the absorption of non-haem iron can be affected by certain factors such as other food substances and cooking conditions. Here are a few ways to boost iron absorption:
1. Don’t drink tea and coffee close to meal times
Coffee can inhibit iron and zinc absorption and the tannins in tea can bind to non-haem iron in the intestine which reduces the absorption. Try not to drink tea and coffee directly before, after or with a meal. Ideally don’t drink tea or coffee within an hour or more of a meal.
2. Eat vitamin C rich foods
Vitamin C can aid with the absorption of non-haem (plant) iron, so try eating vitamin C rich foods with meals, such as fruits and vegetables can help to boost absorption. Small quantities of good quality lean red meat a couple of times per week will also help increase iron levels, and meat also aids with the absorption of iron from plant sources too. Vitamin C rich foods include:
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits
3. Use cast iron pans for some cooking
Early studies have shown that cooking foods in iron pots can increase the bioavailability of iron, and has been found to increase iron concentrations in people with iron deficiency. Moist foods are most likely to benefit in this way such as stews or tomato sauce based dishes.
4. Put meals together smartly
Absorption of non-haem iron can be affected by various substances in foods. Therefore, if you are low in iron putting meals together in ways which enhance absorption may help to increase iron levels. For example, calcium can bind to non-haem iron reducing absorption. Therefore, when eating your most iron rich meal of the day, perhaps don’t have your calcium rich food with that particular meal (e.g. cheese, yoghurt, milk), and instead have them with another meal or as a snack. You shouldn’t cut these foods out of the diet as calcium is extremely important for bone health but eating them separate to iron rich meals may benefit.
Phytates found in cereals may also hinder absorption. However, evidence around this is mixed and adding enhancers of iron to meals may counteract this (e.g. vitamin C – fresh fruits with cereals).
Ann-Marie is a UK Registered Nutritionist (RNutr) and can help you with a number nutritional issues such as general healthy eating, weight loss/gain, increasing energy, improving skin conditions and more. Get in touch for details.