Women’s Health Week: A Full Day of Meals to Boost your Iron Intake

Our next blog is from Elisa Metsikas. Elisa is a second year student at Deakin University currently studying the Bachelor of Nutrition Science. Elisa has a passion for food and nutrition, and is planning to undertake the Masters of Dietetics. She aspires to work as a clinical dietitian in the future.

What is Iron?

Iron is more than just a piece of steak. It is one of the most important minerals for our everyday functioning. It is essential for oxygen transport around the body, cell processes, strengthening of the immune system to fight infection, and the maintenance of our skin 1. Ultimately, we can’t survive without it. Despite being present in many staple foods,  iron is the most common and widespread micronutrient deficiency globally.

Around 30% of women worldwide are iron deficient, and more alarmingly, close to 40% of pregnant women. Iron deficiency (anaemia) is more common in women than men, primarily from blood loss during menstruation. In addition, women tend to consume lower amounts of iron from animal products, called haem-iron, which are more bioavailable compared to iron from plant-based products (non-haem). As such, following a vegetarian diet may increase the risk of iron deficiency in women. It’s recommended that women aged 18-50 should aim to consume 18mg per day of iron,  10mg higher than men, to account for menstrual losses. During pregnancy, iron requirements are 27 mg/day to accommodate for foetal production. As such, strategies to improve iron intake are paramount for women’s health.

Symptoms of low iron and/or anaemia include. but are not limited to, feelings of fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and feeling cold. We recommend women, especially vegetarians, speak with their GP and discuss whether they are at risk of iron deficiency; whereby your doctor may order a blood test.

Luckily, iron is rich in foods from all five food groups as defined by the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and is found in many meats, whole grains, vegetables and legumes, making it easy to incorporate into your daily diet. As such, including a variety of food groups in your dietary pattern will give you a combination of haem- and non-haem iron from both animal and plant-based products.

For tips to increase your Iron intake we have provided a range of ideas for a full day of iron-rich meals easily able to be included into your day to boost iron intake.


Incorporating iron into your first meal is important. By breaking your overnight fast you are fuelling your body with nutrients and energy to kick-start your day:

  • Oatmeal (4.25mg/100g) topped with dried apricots (2.66mg/100g) and a handful of cashews (8.68mg/100g) OR Scrambled eggs (1.19mg/100g) with spinach (3.57mg/100g) and tomatoes, and a glass of iron-fortified orange juice (3.20ml/100ml)

Oats are an excellent plant source of iron, providing almost 2mg of iron in ½ a cup. Dried fruit and nuts are also good source, the richest being cashews and pumpkin seeds.

For a savoury option, eggs provide just under 2mg of iron per serve, and spinach being one of the highest iron-containing vegetables.


  • Trail mix of dried fruit, pumpkin seeds (8.07mg/100g) and 70% dark chocolate (11.90mg/100g) OR Snow peas (2.08mg/100g) with homemade hummus

These snack options are both excellent sources of non-haem iron, with green beans being one of the highest iron containing vegetables, alongside broccoli. Look for trail mixes containing cashews and pumpkin seeds.


Creating a nourishing bowl of foods from different food groups is an excellent way to maintain variety and incorporate iron from a range of sources. Try a bowl comprised of:

  • A base of dark leafy greens (3.57mg/100g), quinoa and baked salmon (or tofu if you’re vegetarian (2.14mg/100g)), topped with broccoli and a sprinkle of hemp seeds (7.95mg/100g)

Dark greens are great iron sources, with only ½ cup of cooked spinach providing the same amount as a 2-3 ounce beef steak! Tofu is an iron rich vegetarian option, and the small daily addition of seeds in meals can accumulate to help increase your iron levels.

Post Workout Snack:

After a workout, your body needs to not only replenish its carbohydrate and protein stores, but also iron, which diminishes during exercise! In fact, iron is best absorbed after working out as large amounts are lost during high intensity exercise through increased blood loss in the urine, and quicker red blood cell breakdown.

  • Iron fortified wholegrain toast (6.00mg/100g), topped with nut butter (3.49mg/100g) and banana OR Banana and nut butter (3.49mg/100g) smoothie (try adding spinach for that extra iron boost!)


  • Black bean (2.36mg//100g) and beef mince (3.50mg/100g) tacos (replace the beef with lentils as a vegetarian option), with capsicum wrapped in wholegrain pita (3.06mg/100g) OR Chicken mince (1.26mg/100g) with tomato sauce and wholemeal pasta (1.72mg/100g)

Legumes provide one of the highest plant sources of iron, with 8mg in 1 cup of white beans! Beef and chicken, both rich in iron with beef containing 5mg per serve. When paired with vegetables high in vitamin C and whole grains, you can create a complete and iron rich meal.


  • 2 squares 70% dark chocolate (11.90mg/100g) OR Nut energy ball (try blending dates with cashews (8.68mg/100g), pumpkin seeds (8.07mg/100g), sesame seeds (6.36mg/100g) and cacao (13.86mg/100g))

Foods to Avoid

Some foods in large quantities or when eaten with iron can inhibit absorption. This includes foods containing:

  • Polyphenols, tannins and oxalates: dairy products, tea and coffee should not be consumed with iron-rich meals.
  • Calcium supplements: should be taken at different times to meals

These foods compete with iron absorption and can diminish the effect of incorporating iron foods into meals. It’s best to avoids these foods while consuming iron-rich meals, but they can still be consumed at other times and in smaller amounts.

However food that contains Vitamin C can help enhance iron absorption, Vitamin C helps to regulate and maximise non-haem iron absorption by a specific process in the gut.

Adding iron into your meals can be as simple as snacking on nuts or adding greens oton your plate! However, before making these changes, we advise you to see your GP to check for iron deficiency.

  1. Whitney EN, Rolfes ST, Crowe T, Cameron-Smith D, Walsh A. Understanding Nutrition: Australian and New Zealand edition. 2nd ed, Melbourne: Cengage Learning; 2014.


Tag list: Tags: , , ,

Join the conversation

back to top