Low Iron Deficiency & How To Increase Your Intake

What do you need iron for? Which foods are rich in iron? These are questions I get asked a lot and it’s not surprising as low iron intakes and anaemia, particularly in teenage girls and women of child-bearing age, seems to crop up quite frequently. This blog explores how much iron we need, the functions iron has in the body, foods rich in iron and tips to increase iron intake. The blog is split up into sections, depending on age group and life stage (i.e. pregnancy), so you may wish to scroll down to see the bit relevant for you. Recipe ideas at the end!


Babies and young children

0-6 months

Infants build up their iron stores in the womb, particularly during the last trimester of pregnancy. Therefore, infants born prematurely are often prescribed iron supplements. The iron an infant accumulates in the womb is needed for growth during the first six months of life. Healthy term infants generally have enough iron to cover their iron needs for about the first six months of life and do not have a large dependence on iron from breast milk, infant formula or other dietary sources.


At 6 months

At six months, a baby’s iron stores start to run low and the demands of growth and red blood cell production means there is an increased need for dietary iron, which can’t be provided from breastmilk or infant formula alone. This is one of the reasons why it is recommended that babies are introduced to solid foods at 6 months and are offered a diverse diet containing iron-rich foods.


Iron is important for…

  • Normal brain development
  • Normal growth
  • Normal function of the immune system
  • Transport of oxygen around the body


How common is low iron intake in young children?

Around 10% of children in the UK aged 1.5 – 3 years have iron intakes which are unlikely to be sufficient for their needs.


Young children at higher risk of iron deficiency…

  • Babies who are introduced to solid foods later than six months of age
  • Children who prefer to fill up on milk rather than eating solid foods
  • Fussy eaters


How much iron do young children need in their diet?

Iron requirements of babies and young children are highest during the period of rapid growth.

4-6 months 4.3 mg/d

7-12 months 7.8 mg/d

1-3 years 6.9 mg/d

4-6 years 6.1 mg/d

7-10 years 8.7 mg/d


Foods rich in iron for babies aged 6 months

  • Red meat, such as pork, beef or lamb (include in purée or provide soft tender pieces as a finger food).
  • Pulses, such as beans and lentils (include in a puree or mashed on toast)
  • Tofu (include in purée or as a soft cooked finger food)
  • Green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, include in a purée)
  • Nuts (finely chopped or as a nut butter)
  • Eggs (include in a purée or as scrambled/pieces of boiled egg).
  • Baby porridge and cereals (e.g. wheat biscuits) are often fortified with iron – check the label).

Vitamin C from vegetables and fruit can help your baby absorb iron from non-meat sources, include them as part of the meal.



Teenagers have an increased need for iron due to the growth spurts during puberty, an increase in blood volume and muscle mass. For teenage girls, iron requirements also increase to cover additional losses due to menstruation.

Teenage girls have a higher risk of iron deficiency, compared to boys, most likely due to:

  • Diet lacking in iron-rich foods and/or
  • Blood loss during menstruation


Iron is important for…

  • Normal brain development
  • Normal growth
  • Normal function of the immune system
  • Transport of oxygen around the body


How common is low iron intake in teenagers?

Around 12% of teenage boys and 54% (over half!) of teenage girls have iron intakes which are unlikely to be sufficient for their needs.


How much iron do teenagers need?

Teenage boys aged 11-18 years need around 11.3 mg/d of iron from their diet whilst teenage girls need 14.8 mg/d.

Adults – including during pregnancy

Why is iron important?

  • Normal function of the immune system
  • Transport of oxygen around the body
  • To help maintain healthy cells and tissues in the body
  • Helps the brain to function normally.


How common is low iron intake in adults?

Around 2% of men and 27% of women aged 19-64 have iron intakes which are unlikely to be sufficient for their needs. Women are much more likely to have intakes which are insufficient because they need more iron compared to men (to compensate for blood loss during menstruation) and don’t tend to consume as much iron in their diet.


Symptoms of iron deficiency

  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Noticeable heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • Pale skin
  • More susceptible to infections


Low iron during pregnancy

Iron deficiency anaemia can be common in pregnancy and is often due to low iron intakes. You are more likely to have iron-deficiency anaemia during pregnancy if you:

  • Are a vegetarian or vegan
  • Have had iron-deficiency anaemia before
  • Have a history of heavy periods
  • Are carrying more than one baby
  • Were younger than 20 years old when you got pregnant
  • You are pregnant again after having a baby within the last year

Iron-deficiency anaemia during pregnancy, if left untreated, can increase the risk of complications before or after the birth. If you have anaemia or your blood iron levels are low your GP will probably prescribe iron supplements to take every day.

Including iron-rich foods in your diet will help you either prevent anaemia or manage your symptoms if you have it.



How much iron do adults need?

Females 19-50y need 14.8 mg/d, whilst males and older (post-menopausal) females need 8.7 mg/d from their diet. Extra iron is needed for baby’s growth and development during pregnancy. However, because of the lack of menstruation and the increase in iron absorption in the gut during pregnancy, iron requirements are the same for pregnant and non-pregnant females.


Tips to increase iron intake

Good sources of iron in the diet

Red meat is particularly rich in iron and iron from animal-based sources is easily absorbed by the body. The iron in iron-rich plant-based foods is less well absorbed. If you follow a vegetarian, vegan or high plant-based diet, it is important to plan your diet carefully to make sure you eat plenty of iron-rich foods. To increase iron absorption from plant-based sources:

  • Avoid drinking tea and coffee during or shortly following a meal, even decaf. This is because the polyphenols in tea and coffee can bind to the iron and reduce the amount that is absorbed
  • If you still eat some animal-based foods – pairing iron-rich animal-based foods with iron-rich plant-based foods (e.g. beef and lentil stew) can increase the amount of iron absorbed from the plant-based foods.
  • Eating foods rich in vitamin C (e.g. red peppers, tomatoes, orange) with iron-rich plant-based foods may also increase the amount of iron absorbed.


Foods high in iron

  • Offal
  • Red meat
  • Beans and pulses
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fish (e.g. canned sardines, cockles and mussels)
  • Quinoa
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Dried fruit

Is spinach a good source of iron? Contrary to popular belief, spinach is not a good source of iron. This is because it only has enough iron for it to be classed as a ‘source’ rather than a ‘good source’ of iron and because spinach contains other compounds which bind to the iron and blocks its absorption in the gut.


Iron-rich food ideas for toddlers and children

  • Nut butter and banana on wholemeal toast – mash or serve the banana as long thin strips for little eaters
  • Low sugar iron-fortified breakfast cereal (e.g. Wheat Biscuits) served with blueberries – check the nutritional information to see if it is fortified
  • Canned sardines in tomato sauce (check for large/hard bones), served in a wholemeal bread toastie
  • Oaty bites (homemade flapjacks sweetened with banana) with chopped dried apricots and dates – a favourite in our house for a healthy pudding or on-the-go snack
  • Slow-cooked beef stew served with quinoa – high in both animal-based and plant-based iron


Iron-rich food ideas for adults and during pregnancy or breastfeeding

  • Porridge served with a spoon of peanut butter, chopped dried figs and apricots, almonds and sesame seeds – delicious!
  • Red pepper strips with houmous dip – perfect for a snack, at home or at your desk
  • Chilli con carne – can be made with meat-free mince (e.g. Quorn) or beef mince to up your iron intake further
  • Lentil dahl with leafy greens – the tomato-based sauce will help the body to absorb the iron from the lentils and leafy greens
  • Mulligatawny soup served with wholemeal bread – a nice winter warmer
  • Canned tuna with baked potato and baked beans – easy and quick, win win!

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