Iron - the Most Common Deficiency

Last Updated : 03 July 1999

Iron is a vital nutrient. In our diets, red meats are the richest source; it is also found in oily fish, the dark meat of chicken and turkey and in some nuts, seeds, dried fruits, dark green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals.

The World Health Organization estimates that 600 - 700 million people are deficient in iron, probably making it the most common nutritional deficiency disorder in the world, in particular in developing countries. While in some of these countries, blood loss (i.e. caused by infestation with hook worms) can be the main cause of the problem, in western Europe, iron deficiency is usually a result of not getting enough of this mineral in the daily diet.

The effects of poor iron intake are far reaching. Iron is needed for haemoglobin (the red pigment in blood) to work properly and carry oxygen to all the body's cells. One of the first signs of low iron intake is tiredness and fatigue. Women and young girls who eat little meat, poultry and fish or who turn completely vegetarian are particularly at risk of running down the body's iron reserves and experiencing symptoms of deficiency.

While approximately 8% of women are estimated to be iron deficient in the west, Dr Mike Nelson, a nutritionist at King's College, London University, believes that between 10 - 20 % of younger girls are affected. Although these girls often appear to be in good health, low iron levels profoundly affect many aspects of their day to day lives, including an ability to concentrate, and thus learn, in school. Nelson tells us, "In tests we have carried out we think that the IQ in British girls who get enough iron in their diets and those who are anaemic can mean the difference of a whole grade in school exams".

"Girls who are dieting and those switching to a vegetarian diet are particularly at risk", explains Nelson: "New vegetarians need to be very careful in the first year of conversion because they often cut out meat and don't know how to replace the iron with other foods. Women and girls who diet and go vegetarian at the same time should think about eating iron fortified foods or even taking a modest supplement".

Increasing iron intakes in this way could make all the difference for youngsters and adults, from the schoolroom to the boardroom. It is known that a lack of iron leads to impairment of brain functioning, affecting both memory and learning abilities.

It is not only the brain that suffers from low iron intakes. Pregnant women and older people also need to take special care. During pregnancy if iron stores are already low, the increased demands made by the quickly growing baby in the last six months of pregnancy may tip the balance and throw the expectant mother into a deficiency state, adversely affecting the growth of the infant's brain. Older people can suffer through poor diets combined with an ageing digestive tract that finds it harder to absorb the iron that is present in foods.

Whatever the age and sex of the individual, eventually it leads to a lowering of the pain threshold, an interference with the body's temperature control mechanisms, an increased likelihood of hairloss and a decrease in the strength of the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections. Clearly, there are many reasons for keeping an eye on daily iron intakes.

Finding Out if you are Iron Deficient

Feeling constantly tired and looking pale are symptoms that may indicate you are running low on iron in your diet and have reached the point of iron deficiency. To find out if this is the cause of these symptoms, the doctor will need to perform a blood test to measure levels of haemoglobin. He will be able to diagnose whether you are at risk of iron deficiency or have already developed iron deficiency anaemia.

Boosting Iron Intakes - Top Foods for Iron


Serving size

Iron supplied

Lean beef



Baked beans



Canned Sardines



Breakfast Cereals (check the label)



Dried figs



Dark turkey meat



Sesame seeds



Spring greens steamed



Iron Absorption

The body absorbs approximately 25% of the iron in meat, fish and poultry. However, absorption of iron from cereals, vegetables and fruits is significantly lower. Iron absorption in these foods is improved if eaten at the same time as:

  • Vitamin C in citrus fruits, berries, kiwi fruit, peppers and potatoes
  • Fructose in fruits and fruit juices
  • Meat and fish protein

Iron absorption is lowered when eaten with the following foods. Try to eat these separately from iron rich foods:

  • Eggs
  • Bran
  • Tea