Get the lowdown on low iron

It’s often joked that electricians houses are full of flickering bulbs and plumbers have leaking taps – well it turns out that my nutritional house is also not quite in order with a gaping hole in the iron department.

Despite having many symptoms of anemia, the recent news that I was very low in iron came as quite a shock – afterall, doing what I do – my diet is pretty well balanced with plenty iron-containing foods and I know quite a few tricks of the trade with regards to iron absorption. So what gives?

I immediately dismissed my low iron levels down to an absorption issue or possible blood loss in the GI tract – and it’s important to note that these issues haven’t yet been discounted and require further investigation. However, it took a good two weeks for me to truly think properly about whether or not I’d really be hitting my recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron – which as a woman of child bearing age is quite high at 18mg/day. And the answer is unfortunately probably no and this maybe a problem that is also affecting you.


In fact, low iron is a pretty common issue in Australian diets starting young with the average iron intakes falling below RDI in all genders and age brackets in our kids up until 9-13 years old and then continuing as an issue for females into their teen and child-bearing adult years where average intakes are well below the RDI. Males from 9 years onwards and post-menopausal women generally reach their iron targets.

So, lets start at the start – what is iron and what are the signs that you maybe low?

Iron is a mineral which is present in a range of proteins notably including your haemoglobin which is critical to the transport of oxygen around your body. Without sufficient oxygen to your bodily tissues, fatigue takes hold and this may be the reason why you can’t seem to peel yourself off the couch, why you maybe having trouble concentrating, why you are unusually puffed out or feel tired or less fit than you should.

Other symptoms include paleness, poor immunity, headaches and dizziness and in extreme or prolonged cases heart palpitations and damage or failure can occur. Iron deficiency can also impact the health of your skin, hair and nails – with dryness or brittleness being a key sign . Though iron deficiency doesn’t cause depression, the symptoms can be very similar and therefore exacerbate existing depression or logically as iron deficiency makes you feel pretty terrible and tired, it can disguise itself pretty well as depression, leading to confusion and misdiagnosis.

The most common causes for iron deficiency are restrictive or poorly-balanced diets, IBS, heavy menstruation or internal bleeding. Pregnancy, high training loads or periods of rapid growth can also catch out people when requirements can raise considerably above previously required levels.

Types of iron and how much do you need

Heme-iron – derived from animal-based sources (red meats, poultry, fish

Non-heme iron – derived from plant-based sources (legumes, grains, veggies)



Heme-iron is absorbed to a far greater extent than non-heme iron and there are various other factors at play which impact iron absorption.

  • Individuals vary in their capacity to absorb iron from food and this also then varies based on their iron levels at any point in time
  • Consuming heme iron at the same time as non-heme iron increases absorption from those non-heme iron sources
  • Vitamin C (or citric/lactic acid) helps the absorption of iron – especially non-heme iron
  • Calcium, Zinc or phytates (as found in some grains, rice or legumes) can negatively impact absorption of iron. Cooking/soaking/sprouting or fermenting your veg and grains can reduce phytate content – but even easier: phytic acid load can be counteracted by vitamin C.
  • Some polyphenols including the tannins in tea or coffee and vegetable proteins can reduce the absorption of non-heme iron.

Translating the key points above into practical tips, this means the addition of some oranges, lemon juice, capsicum or other vitamin C containing foods to your meals and especially into your salads/legumes/veg would be beneficial for iron absorption and don’t have iron-rich foods or supplements with milk-containing drinks/food or with your tea or coffee.

vitamin C on salad

For the reasons above, it’s really important to note that veganism and vegetarianism can be problematic for iron stores if due attention is not applied. This is why the recommended daily intakes (RDI’s) are 80% higher for vegetarians and vegans than those noted below. The values referenced below cover the majority of the populations needs – though many may do just fine with a bit less. It’s really important to note that low iron stores in children can affect cognitive function and growth – so it’s important to ensure your little tackers are on track!

Daily Iron intake targets:

  • Children between 1-3 years 9mg/day
  • Children between 4-9 years: 10mg/day
  • Children between 9-13 years: 8mg/day
  • Girls between 14-18 years: 15mg/day
  • Boys between 14-18 years: 11mg/day
  • Women between 19-50 years: 18mg/day or 9mg/day if lactating
  • Pregnant : 27mg/day – this is virtually impossible to reach via food alone and supplementation during pregnancy is essential
  • Adult men 19years+ and women over 50years: 8mg/day


So – how much iron do you pump a day?

Go ahead and compare your targets (and those of your kids!) above against your typical daily intake of iron-rich foods – referencing the list below for estimated iron content.

Do you reach your RDI?

Typical iron content in 100g of the following heme sources:

  • Shellfish: 4-10mg (clams and oysters are on the higher side, prawns and shrimp on the lower side)
  • Organ meats – eg liver: 6-8mg
  • Beef: 3.5mg
  • Kangaroo: 3.2mg
  • Lamb or dark turkey meat: 2.5mg
  • Fatty fish or white turkey meat: 1-1.3mg
  • Pork: 0.8mg
  • Chicken: 0.4mg
  • White fish: around 0.3mg

Typical iron content in the following non-heme sources:

  • 1 cup of beans, chickpeas or lentils: 4-6mg
  • 30g of fortified cereals (eg Weetbix): 3-4mg
  • 30g of pumpkin seeds or min 70% dark chocolate (yay!): 3mg
  • Half a cup of tofu: 3mg
  • 1 cup of Wholemeal pasta or quinoa: 2.2mg
  • 1 cup of raw spinach or mushrooms: 1.2mg
  • 30g of oats, seeds or most nuts: 1.1mg
  • 4-5 Dried apricots: 1mg
  • 1 cup of broccoli or cooked brown rice: 0.7-0.8mg
  • Slice of bread: 0.5mg

How did your diet compare – do you reach your target?

If not and you’re exhibiting some of the symptoms discussed above, it’s very possible you maybe low on iron. However taking supplementation without medical advice or without having an established deficiency is not recommended and toxicity can result from incorrect supplementation – especially in children. Symptoms may include gastric pain or bleeding, headaches, nausea and vomiting among others.

So your first stop is your GP to get a pathology script to check your iron levels and depending on your results, either work on improving iron-content of your diet – of course Life Nutrition can help with this – and possibly supplementation maybe recommended.

If you do need to supplement, note that there are a wide variety of supplement types from injections to pills or liquids so if you experience unpleasant side effects, pursue other options and dosages as some iron states or salts are more easily absorbed – speak with your GP or pharmacist to find the right solution for you.


Vitamin C

Vitamin C (or L-Ascorbic acid, ascorbate) is a water soluble vitamin that is largely stored in the adrenal glands but also found in high levels in the pituitary glands, white blood cells (leukocytes), brain and eye tissues. It is required to form collagen, serotonin, norepinephrine and thyroxine and helps certain enzymes to function. It acts in the body as an antioxidant, or reducing agent, protecting tissues against oxidative stress which is important for disease prevention.

Deficiency in Australia today is uncommon with most children and adults consuming around double their recommended daily intake, though many will have heard of the vitamin C deficient condition of ‘scurvy’. When scurvy occurs, gums bleed easily around the teeth and teeth become loose as cartilage weakens and capillaries under the skin break. Inadequate amounts of collagen synthesis is associated with haemorrhaging and massive internal bleeding can result. Muscles, including the heart degenerate and the skin becomes rough, brown and scaly with poor wound healing. Bone rebuilding slows, causing soft malformed bones, increased likelihood of fractures and deficiency can be associated with hysteria and depression.

Vitamin C is released from the adrenal glands in times of stress. So those with high activity levels or suffering from burns, temperatures, heavy metal toxicity or drugs will require higher levels of vitamin C intake than the general population. Similarly, smoking can significantly raise the requirements for vitamin C and smokers will often have significantly lower vitamin c levels in the body (up to 40% for male smokers). The amount of vitamin C required for optimal health varies throughout the lifespan and is notably higher during pregnancy and lactation.

Though most people can quite efficiently excrete excess vitamin C, some maybe susceptible to it’s accumulation, especially in response to a high dose of supplements taken over a short time. Such excess vitamin C can cause abdominal cramps, urinary tract infections and diarrhoea. It can also cause both false positives and negative results when testing for diabetes and can interfere with anti-clotting medications. Excess vitamin C can also lead to kidney stones in susceptible people and can cause or exacerbate iron overload as it enhances absorption. This is especially relevant to haemochromatosis patients (affecting about 1 in 300 Caucasians) where it could exacerbate iron-induced tissue damage.

For these reasons, it is recommended that generally daily intake should not exceed 1000mg for adults, so if you are taking supplements, it’s worth a check to verify that this is not exceeded. The role of supplementing vitamin C to treat or prevent illness is still controversial and the evidence is far from conclusive. Most of the controlled clinical trials have found no significant effect of supplementation to reduce the frequency or incidence of colds though there is fair evidence to support how supplementation of 1000mg/day or slightly above can alleviate the symptoms and duration of colds. Such supplementation however, should only be taken after careful consideration of the possible adverse or side effects that may affect some as noted above.

Consuming foods rich in Vitamin C with those containing iron, leads to increased absorption of iron which can be valuable for those whose iron intakes may be low.

Vitamin C is easily destroyed in oxygen and heat and the concentration can vary in natural produce based on the season, shelf life and storage method. Ideally, eat your vitamin C-rich fresh fruit and vegetables as soon as they are cut and refrain from reaching for juices or supplements to top up your vitamin C as they are generally unnecessary. Juices can contribute towards weight gain as they are very high in sugar but low in fibre, and generally the vitamin C in bottled juices is often artificially added after processing to replace such losses through manufacture and storage.

If you are concerned about your vitamin C intake or would like to increase it, try adding some more of these particularly vitamin C-rich foods your diet: citrus fruits, capsicum, kiwi, berries, cabbage, cruciferous or dark green vegetables, cantaloupe and tomatoes. Life Nutrition can also help analyse your diet and work with you to improve your vitamin C intake, so please do not hesitate to contact us further.