Many of us are paying attention to our health and taking steps to boost our immune systems. But exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and drinking plenty of water can only do so much if your iron levels are low.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, and many of us can have low iron levels without even knowing about it.

If you’ve been feeling tired lately, it’s possible your iron levels may need a boost. But why is iron so important and how can we make sure we get enough in our diet?

What is iron?

What is iron?

Iron is an essential mineral that the body needs to function properly. Our bodies can’t produce iron, so we have to get it through our diet – either through foods that contain it naturally or foods that are fortified with iron, like bread and cereals.

One of the main reasons iron is so important to our health is because it’s a key ingredient of haemoglobin, a protein that’s found in red blood cells. Haemoglobin helps transport oxygen in the blood and it represents around two-thirds of all iron in our bodies.

If we don’t have enough iron, we can’t produce enough healthy red blood cells and our bodies can’t get enough oxygen. This means we’ll feel tired and lacking in energy. Should this develop into anaemia (iron deficiency), you might become out of breath easily and start experiencing fatigue and weakness.

Iron also plays an important role in supporting the immune system. Plus, it helps regulate body temperature, can improve athletic performance, and keeps our hair, skin, and nails healthy.

How much iron do we need?

How much iron do we need?

The amount of iron needed depends on a person’s age and gender. For much of their lives, women need more iron than men because they lose blood (and iron-rich haemoglobin) each month during menstruation. However, this means that after menopause, a woman’s iron requirements drop and are the same as a man’s.

The Recommended Daily Allowance of iron for men and women aged 50 and over is 8.7mg – rising to 14.8mg a day for women aged 19 to 49. However, there are some exceptions to this and you may need more iron if you…

  • Have an ulcer (these can cause blood loss)

  • Suffer from kidney failure (particularly if you’re undergoing dialysis, which can decrease iron stores)

  • Have a gastrointestinal disorder (such as coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease) that makes it hard for your body to absorb iron

  • Take antacids, which can prevent your body from absorbing iron

  • Have had weight loss surgery

  • Work out a lot (intensive exercise can damage red blood cells)

Which foods are the best sources of iron?

Which foods are the best sources of iron?

As with most nutrients and essential minerals, the best way to get iron is through your diet.

There are lots of delicious and healthy meals you can make that are high in iron. For inspiration, have a look at these iron-rich recipe ideas from Eating Well. If you’re vegetarian, you might want to check out these recipes from Brit + Co, and if you’re vegan, this article from Olive features plant-based iron-rich recipes.

There are two different types of dietary iron – heme and non-heme – and they work in slightly different ways…

Heme iron

Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body and can be found in animal products like red meat, fish (including halibut, haddock, salmon, and tuna), shellfish (like clams, oysters, and mussels), organ meat (like liver), and eggs.

The iron that’s found in red meat is the easiest for our bodies to absorb. However, the problem with this is that red meat has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. So many people are trying to reduce their consumption of red meat or cut it out altogether. This means it’s important to be aware of other iron-rich foods, such as those which contain non-heme iron.

Non-heme iron

Non-heme iron is found in plants and the best food sources include dried fruits like figs and apricots, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, chickpeas, beans, and pulses.

The problem here is that our bodies don’t absorb as much iron from non-heme iron sources as they do from heme iron (although around 85–90% of total iron intake usually comes in the non-heme form).

The good news, however, is that non-heme iron-rich foods usually come packed with plenty of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and vitamins, which can boost our immune system.

Which foods help you absorb iron?

Which foods help you absorb iron?

If you’re trying to cut back on the amount of red meat you’re eating or you follow a plant-based diet, there are several steps you can take to help your body absorb more iron than it would otherwise.

While our bodies don’t all absorb iron in the same ways, some foods do make it easier – and others can have the opposite effect.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C collects and stores iron from non-heme iron foods, making it easier for the body to absorb.

Some studies suggest that eating foods high in vitamin C can increase iron absorption by 67%. Foods that are high in vitamin C include dark green leafy vegetables, peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, potatoes, strawberries, blackcurrants, and citrus fruits.

Read our guide, Everything you need to know about vitamin C, for more information.

Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene

Vitamin A plays an important role in boosting the immune system and keeping our eyes and bones healthy. Beta-carotene is an orangey-red pigment that’s found in fruit and vegetables which the body turns into vitamin A.

Foods high in beta-carotene and vitamin A include dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, butternut squash, peppers, cantaloupe melon, apricots, peas, and lettuce. This study found that consuming vitamin A alongside iron increased absorption by up to 200%.

To learn more about the role of vitamin A, you might want to check out our complete guide.


On the flipside, foods containing chemicals called polyphenols should ideally be avoided when eating high-iron foods. This is because polyphenols bind to iron and make it less soluble, meaning it’s harder to absorb.

Tea, coffee, and wine are all high in polyphenols. In fact, drinking just one cup of tea with a meal can reduce iron absorption by 60–70%.

If you enjoy tea or coffee with breakfast, it’s best to wait at least half an hour after you’ve eaten to have your drink and enjoy a glass of orange juice with your breakfast instead. Similarly, if you like to drink wine with dinner, to absorb as much iron as possible it’s best to try to wait a while before pouring yourself a glass.

Should I take an iron supplement?

Should I take an iron supplement?

Low iron levels are common. If you think you might have low levels, it’s best to speak to your GP and get your blood checked. The most common blood tests used to identify iron deficiency are haemoglobin, hematocrit, and ferritin tests.

Low iron levels aren’t always easy to spot, but if left untreated, can lead to more serious health complications. Very low iron levels can also indicate various conditions, so it’s important to get your levels checked if you’re worried.

If you’ve tried making changes to your diet but your iron levels are still low, you may want to consider taking iron supplements. Because they can produce results faster than changes to diet, supplements are also often recommended as treatment for iron deficiency.

Once you start taking iron supplements, you should have your blood tested regularly. This will show whether your iron levels have increased and ensure you don’t end up taking too much.

Iron supplements come as tablets, capsules, or as a liquid that you swallow. You can get these on prescription or buy them from pharmacies, supermarkets, or online.

When comparing supplements, be sure to check the amount of elemental iron – this is the amount of iron that’s actually available for absorption. Your GP should be able to tell you the exact dose you need.

According to the NHS, adults shouldn’t take more than 17mg of iron supplements a day, unless advised by your doctor.

People who have the inherited condition hemochromatosis also need to be particularly cautious of taking iron supplements. While most people only absorb around 10% of all the iron they consume, people with hemochromatosis absorb up to 30%, which means that their iron stores can be raised to dangerous levels.

Final thoughts...

Iron is a key mineral that our bodies need to function. It’s also important for maintaining immune system health. While most people can get enough iron from eating a healthy, balanced diet, people with certain medical conditions may be more prone to low iron levels and may need to take iron supplements.

If you’re worried about your iron levels, it’s important to speak to your GP.

For further reading, head over to the general health and diet and nutrition sections of our website.

Have you suffered from low iron levels? Do you take iron supplements? We’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below.