How to boost your dietary iron
April 18-24 is World Iron Awareness Week, time to check that your dietary intake is high enough. Here's how to incorporate iron-rich foods as part of a balanced diet.
Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen around the bloodstream and for red blood cell production — essential for our energy power house, mitochondria. Without the necessary dietary iron, nutritionist Mikki Williden explains, we are unable to carry oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body and iron stores can become depleted, leading to the fatigue or tiredness we often put down to the busy-ness of everyday life. But that’s just the start of it. Iron does a lot more besides. Mikki explains it all here in the importance of iron.
And see our collections of iron-rich recipes here.
The difference between haem and non-haem iron
There are two types of dietary iron. Haem iron is found in meat (highest in red and organ meat) but also in chicken, fish and pork. Non-haem iron is found in plant foods, such as vegetables, cereals, beans and lentils, but is not absorbed as well by the body. Combining haem foods with non-haem foods also increases the absorption of iron in the non-haem foods.
Kathy Paterson combines both in these weekday meals including the lamb leg steaks with broccoli and almond butter, pictured above.
Red and organ meat
The best dietary source of iron comes from organ meat (think liver and kidneys) followed by red meat. According to the last national nutrition survey, low iron levels were evident in one in 14 women, with over a third of teenage girls aged 15-18 years not achieving their daily iron requirements. Eight out of 10 toddlers are not getting enough dietary iron and 14 per cent of children under two are deficient.
You don't have to eat a monster steak to help meet your daily iron requirements. Angela Casley's warm beef salad with marinated mushrooms and croutons (pictured above) is a delicious place to start. Here are some more...
- Prime rib roast roast with winter vegetables and yorkshire puddings
- Chicken liver pate
- Calf's or lamb's liver salad
- Lamb and pumpkin curry with spiced coconut
- Lamb tagine
- Parmesan meatballs
- Lamb burgers
- Chillied beef and cashew stew with coriander salsa
- Devilled kidneys
Oysters and mussels
Great news for oyster lovers – these delectable bivalves are full of iron and zinc and they're low in calories too. Cheap, easy to cook and so accessible, mussels are a more everyday powerhouse of iron and zinc as well as folic acid.
Try them cooked with other sustainable fish in Aaron Brunet’s coconut milk and red curry paste-based chowder, photographed above. And try:
- Oysters with mignonette dressing
- Spaghetti with mussels, carrots and cream
- Oysters casino
- Mussel fritters
Brassicas and dark leafy greens
Think cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, brussels sprouts, watercress, spinach and silverbeet. Photographed above: Angela Casley’s Asian greens are served with marinated tofu (which is another good source of iron). See our supergreens recipe collection for ways to use them and these ideas below. And, to follow, see how to increase their iron absorption with vitamin C.
- Pumpkin and leafy green frittata
- Spinach and lentil curry
- Saag paneer
- Shaved brussels sprout salad
- Bok choy, cabbage and broccolini chicken noodles
- Leafy greens salad
Nuts, seeds and dried fruits
Include iron-rich nuts, such as pine nuts, cashews and almonds, iron-rich pumpkin and sesame seeds and iron-rich dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots, along with some vitamin C-rich fruits to aid their iron absorption. Make up a jar of Aaron Brunet’s sesame sprinkle and another of almond topping to add nutrients and to bring yummy satisfaction to soups and salads.
- Baked parsnip fries with cashew aioli
- Cashew nut, cucumber and pumpkin curry
- Bircher muesli with dried fruit compote
- Cauliflower with golden raisins, capers and toasted almonds
- Apricot pumpkin seed square
- Carrot, date, mint and seed salad
- Gluten and dairy-free seed crackers
Beans, lentils and chickpeas
Cooked or canned beans, lentils, split peas and chickpeas are good sources of iron if you're not eating meat. Ray McVinnie's Turkish potatoes and chickpeas is a thick, delicious vegetarian stew that is full of goodness.
- Mexican bean squares
- Butter bean hummus
- White bean and silverbeet hotpot
- Fig and lentil salad
- Yellow and green soup
Eggs contain iron as well as many other nutrients. If you are having them for breakfast try not to drink tea or coffee as well. Drinking with meals inhibits iron absorption. Delaney Mes serves up these spiced baked eggs, above. More ideas:
- Smoked fish cakes with poached eggs
- Egg, potato and cauliflower curry
- Black pudding and fried egg sandwich
- Baby Spanish omelettes
- Fried eggs with fresh baked beans and harissa
Give plant-based meals a boost
Add lemon juice to salad dressings (and include vitamin C-rich fruit and veg)
Nutritionist Mikki Williden explains: Lemon’s vitamin C content helps the absorption of iron from non-haem (or plant based) iron sources. A salad dressing made from olive oil and lemon juice tossed through kale, spinach or baby silverbeet is a great way to increase the absorption of iron from the dark leafy greens. And, to increase the absorption of non-haem iron, the NZ Nutrition Foundation suggests including vitamin-C rich foods – such as kiwifruit, citrus fruits, orange juice and capsicums – at the same time. “For example, a glass of orange juice with your breakfast cereal will increase the iron absorbed from the cereal.”
Cashew nuts are high in iron and the citrus in Warren Elwin's herby pate (pictured) will up the ante as will these lemony dressings from Kathy Paterson on your leafy greens.
Head to our iron-rich recipe collection for these and more recipes.