Iron is an essential nutrient for good health

Iron has a number of important jobs in the body. It’s needed for your immunity, brain function, and energy production.  It can also help reduce tiredness and fatigue, and it transports oxygen around the body.

Therefore, if you are deficient of iron, you may feel tired, get sick more easily, and find it harder to concentrate.  

It’s important to prioritise iron-rich foods into your own and your family’s diet.

The importance of iron in your diet

Iron is important for everyone, but needs change depending on your age and stage of life. Iron is a key nutrient for the following groups.

Infants, children and teenagers

Iron is extremely important for kids. This is because of the role iron plays in not only the body growing, but also the brain developing.  

Pregnant women

Throughout pregnancy, women produce more blood to supply oxygen to their baby. For this reason (as well as to build up the baby’s own iron stores), it’s important for a pregnant woman to increase her iron intake.

Teenage girls and women

As girls move into the teenage years, their iron requirements increase due to menstruation. In New Zealand, teenage girls are at greatest risk of iron deficiency.

Why do we need iron?

Iron is a mineral essential for good health and wellbeing. It can be found in some foods and has three main roles:

  • To carry oxygen around the body - every cell in the body needs oxygen. There is iron in the haemoglobin of red blood cells and it carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body.
  • To ensure a healthy immune system - the cells that fight infection depend on adequate stores of iron. This means if your iron stores are low, your body may be more prone to infections.
  • For energy - iron is essential for the body’s chemical reactions that produce energy from food. Therefore, if your iron levels are low, your body may not be able to use all the available energy.

Not all iron is equal

Our bodies naturally recycle iron but we also need to get iron from our food. There are two types of iron:

Haem iron: is easily absorbed and found in meat and fish.

Non-haem iron: is less easily absorbed and is found in plant-foods such as spinach, lentils, beans and chickpeas.

Around 25% of haem iron is absorbed by the body, whereas only about 8% of non-haem iron is absorbed. Both Vitamin C and haem iron can help increase the absorption of non-haem iron when eaten in the same meal.  Vegetables are a good source of vitamin C – a logical and helpful part of a meal!