Top5 ~ Nutrient Profile: Iron

Green and leafy but not at all meaty.

Green and leafy but not at all meaty.

Most commonly when I hear conversations about iron it revolves around iron deficiency; pregnancy/breastfeeding and when bub gets to six months old “The iron stores run out!” Second most commonly I hear such things as increase red meat, and take an iron supplement.

Er Mah Gawd, I remove my leather driving gloves and slap you across the face with them! (Not YOU dear reader, but the imaginary person I am conversing about iron with.)

Okay, yes it’s important to increase iron-containing foods during periods of increased demand; and yes red meat contains iron and yes – if a clinically diagnosed iron deficiency has been made, then iron supplementation is necessary, for a time. You see, anaemia is not a disease it’s a symptom of a variety of disease states.

But today’s post is not about anaemia, it’s about iron, which incidentally will provide you with information on dietary therapy for anaemia in that I’ll discuss how to increase the absorption of iron from foods as well as provide you with a list of foods that contain iron.

1. First up, let’s talk about the difference between animal sources of iron and plant sources of iron: Haeme iron compared Non-haeme iron.

Haeme (pronounced heem) iron is the iron bound to animal tissue it is released from the protein portion of haemoglobin or myoglobin during digestion and remains soluble which enables it ready entry into our haemoglobin.

Non-haeme iron is the iron found in plant foods, which is bound to certain components of the plant foods that renders it less readily bio-available. It is also in a different chemical form that requires assistance crossing the intestinal wall into the blood stream.

However, plant foods can still be a reliable source of iron, they just need to be consumed in a manner that supports its absorption. In fact, enhancing the absorption of iron from both haeme and non-haeme food sources is important to consider. We cannot eat red meat at every dinner and assume we’re home free.

2. Things that get in the way of the absorption of iron.

Iron is a mineral that competes for absorption with the minerals calcium and zinc. As such, calcium-rich foods or diet in which they predominate will decrease the absorption of iron.

Iron is best absorbed in an acidic environment, such as would be promoted by the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), citric acid and lactic acid.

Tannins and polyphenols found in tea and coffee, phytates in grains and oxalic acid found in rhubarb, spinach and tea can also interfere with the absorption of iron.

But consider that spinach is both a good source of calcium and iron as well as vitamin C and you can relax about “oh, should I not be eating spinach as the same time as my steak?” Nature sorts it out for us, ‘aight?!

So if you eat a lot of cheese, milk, yoghurt, fortified tofu, ice cream etc. and you don’t eat much vitamin C; if you Hoover your food down at the rate of knots and don’t include foods and lifestyle practices that stimulate the secretion of hydrochloric acid… Then you can officially be concerned about whether or not you’re optimally absorbing the iron in your food.

3. Actions of iron the body.

  • Oxygen transport: The haeme found in haemoglobin is an iron-containing compound that transports oxygen from the lungs to all the tissues of the body.
  • And the haeme found in myoglobin is an iron-containing compound, which provides oxygen to the muscle tissue for short-term oxygen storage in times of increased workload of the muscles.
  • Energy production and detoxification: Enzymes required for the production of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) ~ energy and also enzymes required for certain detoxification processes within the liver are dependent on iron.
  • Anti-oxidant and Pro-oxidant: Iron contributes to haeme-containing enzymes that both protect against certain reactive oxidative species (ROS) but also contribute to a particular reactive oxygen species.
  • I’m not sure if I wrote that simply enough, so I’ll say it again in another way: the haeme in iron takes its place in enzyme systems that destroy harmful substances. But also takes its place in a harmful substance whose pro-oxidative role is to destroy invading bacteria: it is part of the immune response.
  • But too much iron in the body can lead to the accumulation of this pro-oxidative substance and promote associated ill health.
  • DNA synthesis: an iron-dependent enzyme is required for the synthesis of DNA and thus, iron is important for reproduction, growth, wound healing and function of the immune system.

4. Food sources* of iron and vitamin C in order of highest quantity per food:


Beef, Organ meats, Pork, Eggs, Lamb, Chicken, Salmon.


Kelp, Blackstrap molasses, Pumpkin seeds, Sunflower seeds, Parsley, Almonds, Prunes, Cashews, Beet and dandelion greens (dark green leafy veg), Dates, Lentils, dried peas and beans, Sprouts, Brassicas (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli).

Food sources of vitamin C:

Capsicum, Kale, Parsley, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Mustard greens, watercress (bitter green leafy veg), Berries, Citrus, Spinach (dark green leafy veg), Tomatoes.

*This list is not exhaustive.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but nuts and seeds will heal me!

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but nuts and seeds will heal me!

5. To supplement or not to supplement?

If you suspect that you are deficient in iron: easily fatigued upon exertion, breathless, poor immunity, have sustained blood loss or experience bleeding gums, slow to heal wounds or heavy menstrual periods – then please get yourself the to your local GP and tell them you want an iron studies test.

Just tell them. I am so f*cking OVER GPs questioning the onus of one’s health. FFS, it’s my health and I’ll request a blood test if I think I need one!

I did this very thing late last year only to learn that yes, my iron status was at the lower end of the range, all “normal” or “within range” as the conventional medicine wisdom will report, but “low” and “need to get on top of” as my complementary medicine self will surmise. I likely had low iron levels because I had given birth and am a breastfeeding mother with an active lifestyle.

I made a conscious effort to improve the food sources of iron in my diet and arranged a high quality supplement for myself and I’m currently awaiting a new test result. (I have specific iron supplement recommendations to make, but I am not in a position to do so on this blog. If you care to contact me directly I can discuss this topic with you.)

Let’s wrap it up:

  • Iron is found is both animal and plant foods, but is more readily available from animal foods, however this doesn’t mean that plant-based diets cannot deliver sufficient iron.
  • Iron is enhanced by the presence of acids in the digestive system.
  • Iron is decreased by the presence of too much dietary (or supplementary) calcium and zinc.
  • Iron stores in the tissues of the body and is used for delivery of oxygen as well as many other important biological functions, including as a pro-oxidant as part of the immune system.
  • As such, supplementation with iron must be carefully assessed – too much iron in the tissue stores is harmful to the body.
  • Iron stores that are present in a newborn baby do diminish as time passes, but iron is found in breast milk and fortified formulas as well as many foods, which can be introduced into the diet once a baby starts to eat solid food.
  • Nutrigrain is not Ironman food ~ a mixed green stir-fry with sprouts and seeds is!

~Yours with an ironclad high five! K180.


Higdon J. An Evidence-based approach to vitamins and minerals. 2003; Thieme.

Hoffer A, Prousky J. Naturopathic Nutrition. 2006; CCNM Press.

Osiecki H. The Nutrient Bible, 7th ed. 2006; Bio Concepts Publishing.












  1. I’m awaiting the results of the iron studies the blood bank ordered after a low haemoglobin test. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Katie180 says:

      Hi Tracy,
      My pleasure! I hope you’re able to implement some dietary measures to restore iron levels and if you need advice regarding which iron supplement to purchase don’t hesitate to email me, Katie :)

  2. Very interesting
    My son usin
    Iron supplements
    He is 7.

    • Hi Theresa, out of interest, is your son’s iron supplementation being monitored by a health professional?

      • Theresa says:

        Oops just seen question!
        Yes-blood test pre & post 3 months of liquid iron; few weeks to go
        but 2 months in he has grown 3cm!! (Monthly height&weight check also).. (Short stature&anaemia) ..

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