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Iron: foods, benefits & RDA

Siski Green / 14 April 2021

Iron is a mineral we all need to be healthy, and is important for a healthy immune system.

A bowl of iron rich spinach
Spinach is a good source of iron

What is iron used for?

Iron is a mineral that’s essential for healthy functioning. It’s found in every red blood cell and there, helps the transport of oxygen throughout the body, as well as protecting the immune system and removing toxins from the body.

While the majority of people will get enough iron via their diet, those who don’t eat much or any meat, dark green vegetables or eggs, may find they become deficient. There are also some people who don’t absorb iron as they should, and so become deficient. Iron deficiency is called anaemia and also includes symptoms such as sore tongue, cracks at the corners of the mouth and pale complexion. If not dealt with, symptoms will build to include fatigue, lack of ability to concentrate, brittle nails, headaches, dizziness, loss of appetite, sleep problems, tingling hand and feet and palpitations, mostly due to a lack of oxygen.

Once women have gone through menopause, they are less likely to need extra iron. This is because they no longer lose iron via their monthly periods.

What’s the best way to take iron?

As with most minerals that the body needs the best source is your diet but if you cannot get enough by eating more iron-rich foods, you could consider taking a supplement. If you do take a supplement, look for one that contains vitamin C too as it helps your body absorb the iron. Be aware that it’s possible to get too much iron and this can cause damage to your health in the form of hepatitis and heart problems. It’s also important to keep iron tablets out of the reach of young children as even small amounts can be poisonous to them.

You’ll need 8.7mg per day, but this should come via your diet if possible. A 100g serving of liver, for example, contains 6.5mg of iron; 100g of spinach contains 2.7mg.

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Where can I get iron?

Red meat, dark green leafy vegetables and liver are all excellent sources for iron. Eggs, seafood, asparagus, parsley, whole grains, nuts and pulses also contain iron.

Supplements are available at healthfood shops, supermarkets and online.

What are the side effects of taking iron?

Taking supplements can cause digestive discomfort. Taking ferrous sulphate along with iron after a meal will help prevent this, however. Taking too much iron can be extremely harmful, even causing cell damage and eventually organ failure, which is why it’s so important to check with your doctor before taking supplements.

Are there any contraindications when taking iron?

Getting iron via your diet is essential to stay healthy, but most people won’t need extra. There are, however, certain medications that reduce your body’s ability to absorb iron (such as those addressing stomach acid, for example) and so you may need to take supplements in that case. See your GP.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.