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, which is then delivered to all of the cells in our body. As a result, severe cases of iron deficiency lead to tiredness and exhaustion, among other symptoms. Many foods have small amounts of iron in them, so people who eat a balanced diet can normally get enough iron that way.
How much iron do we need?
The recommended daily iron intake for women is 15 milligrams (mg) before menopause, and 10 mg after menopause. The recommended daily iron intake for men is 10 mg. The reason why women need more iron before menopause is because they lose iron during their monthly period.
Pregnant women are advised to get at least 30 mg of iron per day so their growing baby has enough, too. In the first few weeks after the baby is born, women need about 20 mg of iron per day to refill the iron stores that were partly depleted during pregnancy and childbirth.
Which foods have a lot of iron in them?
Meat is a good source of iron. It has the animal's red pigment (hemoglobin) in it. 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 and vegans to get the recommended increased amount of iron during pregnancy only though the foods that they eat.
The amount of iron you get also depends on what you eat and drink overall. This is because different combinations of foods have a different effect on how much iron is absorbed through the bowel.
For instance, certain substances bind to iron in the bowel, making it harder for the body to absorb iron from plant-based foods. These substances 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.
What increases 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 increase the amount of iron absorbed from plant-based foods too.
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 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) et al. Referenzwerte für die Nährstoffzufuhr. Bonn: DGE; 2017.
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