Written by Julie Meek, Kale & Co Accredited Nutritionist and Practising Dietician.

In the daily flurry of worrying about whether we are eating too much, too little, enough protein, too much carbohydrate and the other million things to think about when it comes to our bodies and food, it is easy to forget a little mineral that can do wonders to our energy levels and well-being.

When I think of this essential nutrient, I think of Popeye. Popeye is super vintage now but once you have seen the image of Popeye clutching a can of spinach and gulping it down with biceps bulging, it’s hard to forget. That pipe-smoking completely inappropriate sailor was all about iron.

The thing is, Popeye did not get his iron and strength from spinach. Myths abound about iron but the fact is, iron in food is found in two forms – ‘haem’ iron, which is found in animal foods and ‘non-haem’ iron, which is found in plant foods. Spinach and silver beet are touted as great sources of iron and do provide non-haem iron, but it is not well absorbed by our bodies.

Foods containing non-haem iron can also contain other substances, which make the iron unavailable to your body. These include tannin (in tea), phytates (in wheat bran and breakfast cereals) and oxalates (in spinach). The consumption of Vitamin C at the same meal enhances the iron absorption of these foods.

Unbelievably, 30% of the world’s population is considered to be iron deficient! Are you one of them?

Initially, symptoms of iron deficiency can be overwhelming tiredness. If iron stores become lower, symptoms include severe fatigue, cramps, headaches and shortness of breath. Iron deficiency usually develops in three stages:

· Decreased iron stores which are measured by blood ferritin levels

· Level of iron in the blood falls

· Haemoglobin levels drop

It is not advisable to swill iron supplements without first checking your iron status (through a blood test) as excessive iron intake can be toxic. The opposing problem to iron deficiency is haemochromatosis – otherwise known as iron overload but given the symptoms for both are very similar, it is always a good idea to get checked first.

Iron is a pretty important nutrient, especially if you are active. It is required for the formation of the oxygen carriers, haemoglobin in the blood and myoglobin in the muscles. Low iron equals low oxygen circulation, which could be why your exercise session seems to be continually difficult (low fitness levels aside).

Iron is also involved with some of the enzymes that promote exercise metabolism and an iron deficiency decreases the oxygen supply to muscles and slows down some of these metabolic reactions. Heavy exercise means that you can lose more iron from the body through sweat and gastrointestinal bleeding (especially if anti-inflammatory drugs are used for injuries) and red blood cells can also be destroyed by continual jarring and impact, particularly running.

Where do you get it?

Food Serve Mg Iron
Haem foods
Liver 100g (cooked weight) 11.0
Liver pate 40g (2 tbsp) 2-3
Lean steak 100g (cooked weight) 4.0
Chicken (dark meat) 100g (cooked weight) 1.2
Fish 100g (cooked weight) 0.6-1.4
Oysters 100g (10) 6.0
Salmon 100g (small tin) 1.4
Non-haem foods
Eggs 100g (2) 2.0
Breakfast cereal (fortified) 30g (1 cup) 2.5
Wholemeal bread 60g (2 slices) 1.4
Spinach (cooked) 90g (2/3 cup) 3.6
Lentils/kidney beans (cooked) 100g 2.5
Tofu 100g 1.9
Almonds 50g 2.1
Sultanas 50g .9
Dried apricots 50g 2.0
Source: NUTTAB, Aust. Dept. Of Comm. Serv. And Health
How much do you need?
Daily Iron Requirements Mg Iron / day
General training - males and non-menstruating women 7 mg
General training - menstruating women 12-16 mg
General training - growing adolescents 10-13 mg
Pregnancy (Trimester 2 and 3) 22-36 mg

Our Kale and Co. meals and snacks contain a mix of different proteins and haem foods and we know that it can be tricky to get enough iron. Making sure you do will result in extra energy and improved performance. Just don't forget the Vitamin C!

*Image via Pinterest.


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