Iron is a nutrient needed for many functions of the body, such as making haemoglobin in red blood cells, which transports oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. While it can store iron, your body can't make it. The only way to get iron is from food.
There are 2 types of iron in food: haem and non-haem. Haem iron, found in meat, poultry and seafood, is absorbed more effectively than non-haem iron, which is found in eggs and plant foods.
Animal-based sources of iron
Top animal-based sources of iron include:
- red meats (beef, lamb, veal, pork, kangaroo). The redder the meat, the higher it is in iron
- offal (liver, kidney, pate)
- fish or shellfish (salmon, sardines, tuna)
Plant-based sources of iron
Plant foods containing non-haem iron can still provide an adequate amount of iron for the body. Good sources include:
- dried fruit
- wholemeal pasta and bread
- iron-fortified bread and breakfast cereal
- legumes (mixed beans, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, silver beet, broccoli)
How much iron do I need?
Your recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron depends on your age and sex:
- Children aged 1-3 years — 9 milligrams (mg)
- Children 4-8 — 10mg
- Boys 9-13 — 8mg
- Boys 14-18 — 11mg
- Girls 9-13 — 8mg
- Girls 14-18 — 15mg
- Men aged over 19 — 8mg
- Women aged 19-50 — 18mg
- Women 51+ — 8mg
- Pregnant women — 27mg
- Women breastfeeding exclusively — 9-10mg
Women need more iron to replace the amount lost in blood during menstruation. Until menopause, women need about twice as much iron as men.
Iron deficiency occurs when the iron levels are too low, which can lead to anaemia. If you are worried you have an iron deficiency, your doctor may order some blood tests and may suggest iron supplements. You should always speak to your doctor before you take iron supplements as you could poison yourself if you take too much.
Need help getting enough iron?
Click on this infographic to ensure you get an adequate iron intake from a balanced diet.
Learn how much iron you need each day, which foods are the best sources of iron and how to incorporate them in your diet.
How to improve iron absorption from food
How you prepare food, and which foods you eat together, can affect how much iron your body absorbs.
For example, foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, kiwi fruit, melons, green leafy vegetables and capsicum can help you absorb more iron if you eat them at the same time as iron-rich foods. Add them raw to your plate, drink unsweetened orange juice with your meal, or take a vitamin C supplement.
Coffee, tea and red wine (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), on the other hand, can reduce iron absorption. Calcium-rich foods, calcium supplements and some soybean-based foods can also inhibit iron absorption.
It’s better to have coffee, tea, red wine and dairy foods in between meals.
Can you have too much iron?
In healthy people, the body regulates how much iron it absorbs from food and supplements — so it’s difficult to have ‘too much’ iron in your diet.
However, some people have a genetic condition called haemochromatosis, which causes the body to absorb excess iron. The normal level of iron in the body is 3 to 4 grams, but in people with haemochromatosis it can be more than 20g.
About 1 person in every 300 has haemochromatosis, and it’s usually picked up through screening people who have a close relative with the condition.
Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your iron levels.
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Last reviewed: January 2021