Bishop's Stortford dietician Alex Ballard gives her top tips for giving your iron levels a boost
Alex Ballard, who lives in Bishop's Stortford and works as a specialist dietician in West Essex, writes about the tasty ways to get more iron into your diet...
Spoiler alert! Although it contains a dash, it is a myth that a pint of Guinness is loaded to the brim with iron. Despite clever marketing strategies it seems unlikely that Guinness will in fact 'make you strong'. However, this does not mean that other dietary sources cannot give your iron levels a beneficial boost.
Iron is a multi-purpose mineral that our bodies depend upon for oxygen transportation and upholding a healthy immune system. Insufficient intake is a common cause of anaemia and can lead to fatigue, lethargy and increased infection risk. In more extreme cases, deficiency can even result in brittle nails, thinning hair, itchy skin and mouth ulcers.
But do not fear; a healthy and balanced diet can help make sure that your iron levels are kept in tip top condition. Dietary sources of iron can be referred to as either animal-based or plant-based (haem or non-haem if we are getting technical).
Animal-based sources, in particular beef, pork and lamb, are jam-packed with easily absorbable iron. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we should start piling our plates high with cuts of red meat as heart disease and global warming is not a desirable compromise. Alongside a moderate lean red meat intake, other animal-based sources include poultry, eggs and fish (especially oily varieties).
Liver is also jam-packed with iron; however pregnant women are advised not to eat liver or liver products due to high levels of vitamin A. They should also seek advice from a healthcare professional about eating fish safely.
Additionally, jumping aboard the plant-based bandwagon can boost your iron intake. Foods such as beans, pulses, tofu, nuts, peanut butter, seeds, tahini, dried fruit, brown rice, wholemeal bread, fortified breakfast cereals, tomatoes, mushrooms and dark green leafy vegetables (for example spinach, broccoli and cabbage) are all dietary sources that could be introduced.
Dark chocolate and liquorice are also iron-dense ingredients, however be mindful that large quantities will clock up calories and cause potentially unwanted laxative side effects!
Plant-based iron-containing foods are not absorbed as effectively by the human body as animal-based sources. However, combining the two together can help speed things up, for example serving meat with spinach or eggs with beans. Additionally, some pearls of food prep wisdom can help, such as cooking plant-based options, soaking nuts and seeds and using sprouted seeds and grains. This is especially important for individuals following a strictly vegetarian or vegan dietary approach.
Vitamin C (sometimes referred to as ascorbic acid) also accelerates absorption. Dish up your iron-containing foods alongside oranges, lemons, grapefruit, blackcurrants, strawberries, fruit juice or vegetables. For example, have your meal alongside a small glass of orange juice (limit fruit juice and smoothies to a total of 150ml per day) or slice strawberries into your fortified breakfast cereal.
On the flip side, tannins, an organic compound lurking in tea and coffee, can bind to iron and consequently reduce its availability. Therefore, if you are a constant caffeine craver or can be described as a 'teapot', this may be getting in your way of A-star iron levels. Try to avoid having tea and coffee close to meal times and instead get your fix in between. There is no harm in having your morning cuppa, but try not to sip it directly alongside your brekkie.
If you are still struggling to meet your iron needs and are stuck with where to go next, consider how much milk, dairy and wholegrains you are eating; as excessive quantities can also limit absorption.
We are not all the same and therefore require different advice, quantities and options. Individuals with higher requirements for iron include menstruating females, pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under the age of five, vegetarians and the elderly.
As a rule, diet is best. However, if you cannot get sufficient iron via this route, supplements may be needed. Do not exceed the recommended dose as it will be unnecessary, expensive and there can always be too much of a good thing.