3 Simple Dietitian-Approved Hacks to Boost Your Iron Intake

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Iron is everywhere, in plants, animals, water — even rocks and soil. But when it comes to iron in humans, it turns out Aussies aren’t so great at absorbing it, particularly women, with approximately one in five suffering some form of iron deficiency. 1

With those lacking iron often feeling constantly tired, inexplicably lethargic, run-down, moody, or unable to concentrate, it’s no surprise that when suffering an iron deficiency, you’ll unlikely be performing your best.

As an essential element integral to the proper function of your organ systems and many biochemical processes, including heart health, immune function, energy levels and healthy brain function. So you could say it’s essential to stay on top of your levels with a regular blood test, ordered by your GP, to make sure you’re in the healthy range or appropriate supplementation, if not.

When it comes to iron absorption, it’s unfortunately not as simple as enjoying a steak once per week and job done! Here, practising dietitian Kate Save shares everything you need to know about optimal iron absorption and why it’s essential to live your best, most energetic life.

What is Iron?

Iron is essential for the storage and transportation of oxygen within the body via your red blood cells. When you have sufficient iron intake, you’ll enjoy abundant energy, you will think clearly, and your immune system will function at the optimal level, all key ingredients to helping you feel your best!

There are two types of iron, and how your body absorbs them is very different.

Haem iron is found in meats such as beef, pork and lamb, chicken, and fish. This form of iron is absorbed more easily than the second form of iron called Non-Haem Iron. Non-Haem iron-rich foods are found in plant foods such as leafy greens, dried fruit, legumes, nuts, wholesome breaks, and iron-fortified foods (cereals).

While haem iron is absorbed four times more efficiently than non-haem iron, non-haem iron absorption is three times greater when foods containing Vitamin C are eaten in the same meal. Just something to remember when you’re writing next weeks meal plan!

How Do I Know If I’m Iron Deficient?

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world. Most likely to suffer from this are women who experience heavy menstrual cycles, pregnant women, vegetarians, vegans or those with certain medical conditions, such as coeliac disease.

It can be a little difficult to pinpoint an iron deficiency as many symptoms are obscure and subtle; however, general signs of iron deficiency include constant fatigue and a lack of energy, breathlessness, dizziness, or a feeling of weakness. It can also cause brittle fingernails, hair loss, a paler than usual complexion, cracked skin around the mouth, and heart palpitations – YIKES.

If this sounds like you, don’t stress, iron deficiency can be easily diagnosed via a visit to your GP, who will likely order a blood test to ascertain your levels.

How to Boost My Iron Intake?

— Cook up a storm

Love cooking up a storm in the kitchen? Try taking your meals to the next level by baking your favourite veggies, turning on the BBQ for a perfectly cooked steak, or pop your favourite legumes into the slow cooker for a slow-cooked delight. Try mushrooms or potatoes, or even tofu for non-haem iron sources.

If cooking isn’t your forte, look for pre-prepared meals that are nutritionally balanced to ensure that you don’t miss out on any essential vitamins and minerals.

For the vegetarians and vegans out there, ensure your high iron meals are also packed full of ingredients that contain vitamin C, such as brussels sprouts, capsicums and citrus fruits for the ultimate absorption. And add in some extra cooked veg for that extra iron boost. For example, the body absorbs around six per cent of the iron from raw broccoli, but this increases to 30 per cent when cooked — I hope you like your steamed greens!

— Timing is everything

Another hack to boost your iron is to be mindful of your exercise times and then plan to eat your high iron meals outside these windows. Exercise stimulates the release of a hormone that signals your body to reduce iron absorption. So by eating your iron-rich meals outside of your training windows – give it three or so hours, you can feel confident that your body is absorbing as much of that iron goodness as possible. 

If you’re a morning person – I envy you – you should opt for a high iron dinner full of root vegetables, fish, lentils, or red meats. For those who prefer a night workout, fill your breakfast oats with berries, hemp seeds, and cacao nibs. 

— Start supplementing

Increasing iron in your diet is a significant first step, but sometimes it’s just not sufficient. When you’re craving your favourite takeout meal or would rather a chocolate milkshake over a green smoothie, including a daily iron supplement into your routine can help with your iron intake. 

When choosing a supplement, it is important to check the strength of elemental iron specified on the packaging, as some iron supplements sold in pharmacies are not indicated to prevent and treat iron deficiency. If your GP has diagnosed you with a deficiency, it’s wise to speak directly to your pharmacist about which product is right for you.

Another great tip is to look for iron supplements that contain vitamin C, as this will help increase iron absorption. A good example is Ferrogen iron + Vitamin C — which contains Ferrous Sulphate, a compound used to treat iron deficiency, and vitamin C, which helps increase iron absorption. 

One final word of warning, if you suspect that you are low in iron, it’s vital that you see your doctor and get tested before pursuing treatment options.

Kate Save is an Accredited practising Dietitian, Exercise Physiologist and Diabetes Educator and CEO & Co-Founder of Be Fit Food, a science-backed food and support program allowing Australians healthy and sustainable weight loss solutions through eating nutrient-rich, real food.

Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional.

References: Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Lookup/by%20 Subject/4364.0.55.008~2011-12~Main%20Features~Iron~402 (accessed March, 2019); Ahmed, F et al. – Iron Status among Australian adults findings of a population-based study in Queensland, Australia, Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2008;17 (1):4

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