The human body needs iron for a lot of reasons. Most of the iron in our body is found in our blood. It is part of the red pigment in blood and helps the blood to carry oxygen. As a result, more severe cases of iron deficiency are often associated with tiredness and exhaustion. People who eat a balanced diet can normally get enough iron that way. Most foods have (usually very small amounts of) iron in them, contributing to our overall iron intake.
The recommended daily iron intake for women is generally 15 milligrams (mg). Men need less iron: Their recommended daily iron intake is 10 mg. Women need more iron because they lose iron during their monthly period.
According to the German Nutrition Society (DGE, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung), pregnant women need 30 mg of iron per day in order to provide for their baby. After the baby is born, they need about 20 mg of iron per day to refill the iron stores that were depleted during pregnancy and childbirth.
Which foods have iron in them?
Meat is a good source of iron because it has the red pigment hemoglobin in it too. The iron found in hemoglobin is easily absorbed by our bodies. Iron in plant-based foods is generally more difficult to absorb and use. So it may be difficult for vegetarians to get the recommended double amount of iron during pregnancy only though the foods that they eat.
The amount of iron you get also depends on your diet as a whole. This is because different kinds of food influence each other. Our bodies also adapt depending on how much iron we currently need: If our iron stores are empty, our bodies can get a lot more iron out of the food we eat.
The uptake of iron from plant-based foods can be reduced by other substances in food. These substances bind to iron in the bowel, preventing the body from absorbing it. They include things like tannins (e.g. in red wine or black and green tea), oxalic acid (e.g. in spinach, beetroot, rhubarb and cocoa), phytate (e.g. in cereals) and phosphate (e.g. in processed cheese slices and spreads). Wheat bran, dairy products, soy products and coffee also contain substances that reduce iron uptake.
People who eat a lot of plant-based foods, or only eat plant-based foods, can increase their iron uptake by combining different plant-based foods in specific ways. For instance, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) increases iron absorption. Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, orange juice, broccoli and red peppers. Meat, fish and poultry also increase the amount of iron absorbed from plant-based foods.
The following table provides a rough idea of how much iron different foods have in them. The foods listed in the table are mainly foods that have particularly high amounts of iron in them.
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung (DGE), Österreichische Gesellschaft für Ernährung (ÖGE), Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Ernährungsforschung (SGE), Schweizerische Vereinigung für Ernährung (SVE). Referenzwerte für die Nährstoffzufuhr. Bonn: DGE; 2017.
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