Iron is an essential mineral that has several important roles in the body. Possibly its most important and well-known function is its role in helping in the formation of red blood cells, and subsequent carriage of oxygen around the body.
A lack of iron can lead to anaemia, a condition where the amount of haemoglobin in the blood is below the normal level, or there are fewer red blood cells than normal.
Good sources of iron include:
- liver (contains large amounts of vitamin A, and should be avoided during pregnancy)
- dried fruit, such as dried apricots
- wholegrains, such as brown rice
- fortified breakfast cereals
- soybean flour
- most dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and curly kale
Interestingly, while spinach is commonly thought of as a good source of iron, spinach also contains another substance that actually makes it harder for the body to absorb the iron, so it is not a good dietary source of this mineral.
Similarly, tea and coffee can reduce the absorption of iron. Therefore, cutting down on tea and coffee – especially at mealtimes – could help improve your iron levels.
The daily requirement of iron is 8.7mg a day for men and 14.8mg a day for women, and you should be able to get all the iron you need from your daily diet.
However, some people may benefit from iron supplements, such as women who lose a lot of blood during menstruation.
It is important to get advice from your GP or a state-registered dietitian before taking iron supplements, as taking high doses of iron can result in side-effects including constipation, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain, and very high doses of iron can be fatal, particularly in by children.
The Department of Health advises that taking 17mg or less a day of iron supplements is unlikely to cause any harm. However, if your GP has advised you to take more than this, you should continue to do so unless a change in dose is discussed with your doctor.