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The Importance of Iron

By Shaun Wadham, Level One Triathlon Coach, Registered Fitness Leader

A lack of iron is on of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world.

Why is iron so important?

Iron is a component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all body tissues and takes carbon dioxide to the lungs.  It is also an essential part of the chain of chemical reaction, which produce energy in the body.  Finally cells that fight infection depend on adequate stores of iron.

How much do I need?

The recommended daily intake of iron is 12-16 milligrams for menstruating women and 7mg for males and non-menstruating females, Male athletes require between 7 and 17.5mg per day, with endurance athletes requiring around the upper limit. Female, menstruating athletes require between 16mg and 23mg, with endurance athletes requiring around the upper limit.

What happens if I don’t get enough iron?

If you have an iron deficiency you will most likely feel lethargic, chronically tired, weak, find it hard to concentrate and you will be prone to infections.

What food groups contain iron?

Red meat, seafood and poultry are the best sources of iron. They contain large amounts of haem iron, which is easily absorbed by the body.  Cereals, vegetables and eggs contain haem iron, which is not easily absorbed by the body.

To increase absorption of iron you can add vitamin c rich food to your meals such as capsicum, broccoli, cabbage, citrus fruits and rock melon or fruit juices.  Tea, coffee and milk can inhibit the absorption of iron from vegetarian meals so drink these fluids between meals and enjoy water or juices with meals.

Vegetarians can obtain sufficient iron only if they eat a variety of legumes, grains, seeds, nuts, eggs and vegetables.

What contains iron?

The table following gives some examples of the amount of iron in various foods.

Food Serve size Iron (mg)
Lean red meat 150gm cooked 5.0
Chicken 150gm cooked 1.5
Fish 150gm cooked (avg) 0.6
Salmon 100gm 1.7
Eggs 2 medium 1.5
Wholemeal bread 2 slices 1.4
White bread 2 slices 0.7
Lentils 1 cup cooked 5.1
Fortified b/fast cereal 1.5 cups (90gms) 5.0
Almonds 50gms 2.1
Spinach ½ cup cooked 2.2

* Varies between cereals        

What about iron supplements?

Iron supplements are not a quick fix solution but in some cases they may be used to correct a deficiency. Most contain poorly absorbed forms of iron and they interfere with the absorption of other essential nutrients and may cause constipation and nausea.  It is best to consult your doctor before you use supplements to correct an iron deficiency.