Healthy eating habits/Iron for Young Women

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This page provides information on how young women can meet their iron requirements. Iron is a particularly important nutrient for women of child bearing years (19-50 years of age) and not meeting iron requirements may affect both energy levels and brain functioning.[1]

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Iron in the body

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Why do I need Iron?

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Iron has many important roles in the body.

  • It is essential for oxygen transport in the blood and muscles.
  • It is a component in pathways that release energy from food for the body to use.
  • It has important roles in maintaining immunity [2]

How much Iron do I need?

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Iron is a trace mineral, this means, it is only required by the body in small amounts.

  • For women of child bearing years (19-50 years of age): 18mg/day is recommended (without exceeding 45mg/day).[3]
  • However, for women of child bearing years who follow a vegetarian diet, almost twice as much iron is recommended: 32mg/day. [2]
    This is due to plant based iron sources being less readily absorbed by the body than animal based iron sources.

Iron Deficiency

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Iron Deficiency occurs when the body's iron stores are low. This is different to Iron deficiency anaemia, which is a significant reduction of iron stores, that results in the blood's inability to deliver sufficient oxygen to the tissues of the body and energy producing pathways in the body are compromised [4]

Symptoms of Iron deficiency depend on the degree of Iron deficiency and include: decreased energy, breathlessness, pale skin, lack of concentration [2]

WHY are young women at risk?
  • Young women are especially prone to iron deficiency due to repeated blood losses experienced during menstruation.
    Iron is lost from the body through bodily excretions (urine, faeces, sweat and shed dead skin cells), in addition to this women experience losses through menstruation. All these losses accumulate and represent 1.5mg/day of Iron that is lost and must be replaced. [2]
  • People following a vegetarian diet are also at risk of iron deficiency due to their plant based iron sources, which are less readily absorbed.
    It is important to note that only 10% of Iron from a vegetarian diet is absorbed, compared with 18% of Iron from a mixed diet (containing plant and animal based products). [3]
  • Pregnancy also increases the body's requirements for Iron and as such may be particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency.[1]

Iron Toxicity

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Iron overload or toxicity is uncommon, as Iron is tightly regulated by the body. It may however occur in the following cases:

  • Haemochromatosis: a genetic condition that causes disruptions in the body's iron regulatory systems resulting in an increase in iron absorption and causing a build up of Iron in the body.[1]
  • If an excessive amount of iron supplements are taken.[1]

Symptoms may include gastrointestinal side effects such as constipation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. [2]
It is therefore important not to exceed 45mg of Iron per day. [3]

Iron in the diet

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Iron is found in two forms in the Diet. Haem Iron and Non- Haem iron

Haem Iron

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  • Only found in animal products
  • More easily absorbed by the body.
  • 25% of Haem iron is absorbed. [2]

Non-Haem Iron

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  • Found in both animal and plant products
  • Less easily absorbed by the body.
  • 17% of non-haem iron is absorbed.[2]

Food Sources of Iron

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Haem Food Sources

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Rendang hati
Food Source Serving Size Iron Content (mg)
Chicken Liver 100g, cooked 13mg
Beef Liver 100g, grilled 6.5mg
Beef, lean 100g, grilled 3mg
Lamb, lean 100g, cooked 2.5mg-3mg
Turkey 100g, cooked 2.3mg
Chicken 100g, cooked 1.3mg
Fish (white) 100g, cooked 1mg
Tuna 100g, canned 1mg
Pork 100g, cooked 0.8mg
Food ordered (left to right): lowest to highest Iron content
Weetbix Stevage
Green lentils

Non Haem Food Sources

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Food Group Food Source Serving Size Iron Content
Iron fortified
Breakfast cereals
Eg. Weetbix
2 biscuits, one cup (30g) 3-4mg
Iron fortified bread
Eg. Burgen wholemeal bread,
Wonder White wholemeal
bread plus Iron
1 slice 2-4mg
Quinoa 1 cup, cooked (1/4 cup raw) 4mg
Brown rice 1 cup, cooked (150g) 1mg
Vegetables Green leafy vegetables
Eg. Spinach, kale, rocket
1 cup 4-5mg
Asparagus 5 spears, canned 2mg
Broccoli 100g 1mg
Avocado 1/2 medium 1mg
Fruit Dried apricots 4 dried apricots
(8 dried apricot halves)
Tofu (firm) 1/2 cup 2-3mg
Cashews handful (30g) 1.5-2mg
Lentils 1/2 cup cooked 2-3mg
Herbs Parsley 1 cup (25g) 0.7g

All information retrieved from [5] and [6]

Nutrient Interactions

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Factors Increasing Iron absorption

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  • Including Vitamin C food sources in a meal, increases the absorption of non-haem iron sources.
    Vitamin C food sources include: Tomato, capsicum, citrus fruits (such as orange, lemon, lime), strawberries, kiwifruit, broccoli.
  • Including haem sources of iron in meal, increases the absorption of non-haem iron sources.
    For eg. including meat products in a salad with green leafy vegetables.
  • Cooking vegetables helps to increase non-haem iron absorption [7]

Factors Decreasing Iron absorption

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  • Chemical compounds such as: tannins, found in tea, coffee and red wine can interfere with the absorption of iron by the body.
  • Chemical compounds such as: phytates, found in bran, some legumes and some nuts.
  • Calcium can reduce non-haem iron absorption. [7]

Planning an Iron Rich Meal

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  • For Breakfast choose Iron fortified cereal or bread (see section 3.2) and add Vitamin C with fruits such as strawberries or kiwifruit or a glass of orange juice.
  • Include haem iron (animal based products) in green leafy salads or for a vegetarian option, include vitamin C sources, for eg. tomotoes or a citrus-based dressing to help the body absorb non-haem iron sources (plant based products).
  • Snack on high iron foods such as cashews or dried apricots.
  • Cook vegetables helps to increase iron absorption from plant foods (non haem iron sources).

Additional Resources

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  1. a b c d Thomas, B. & Bishop, J. (Eds). (2007). Manual of Dietetic Practice. (4th edition). Carlton, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing
  2. a b c d e f g Whitney, E., Rolfes, S.H., Crowe, T., Cameron-Smith, D.& Walsh, A. (2011). Understanding Nutrition. South Melbourne, VIC: Cengage Learning.
  3. a b c National Health and Medical Research Council, NHMRC. (2006). Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand: Iron. Retrieved from:
  4. Better Health Channel. (2012). Iron deficiency- Adults. Retrieved from:
  5. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, FSANZ. (2013). Nuttab online searchable database. Retreieved from:
  6. Kouris-Blazos, A. (2012). Food Sources of Nutrients: A ready reckoner of Macronutrients, micronutrients and phytonutrients and Chemicals. Sydney: Dr. Antigone Kouris-Blazos.
  7. a b Better Health Channel. (2014). Iron. Retrieved from: