1. Drink kombucha and kefir
The World Health Organisation describes iron deficiency as a global public health problem and “the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world”. Symptoms include poor appetite, high levels of fatigue and trouble exercising or concentrating. Yet something as simple as a daily probiotic drink, rich in gut-friendly bacteria, can help to increase the uptake of the nutrient from the food you eat. “Fermented drinks such as kefir and kombucha, which are rich in probiotics, can help to improve your iron status if you eat an otherwise healthy diet,” the nutrition therapist Ian Marber says. “Fermented foods such as yoghurt and tempeh will also help.” In a 2015 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition a team of Swedish scientists reported that the “intake of probiotics can increase iron absorption by about 50 per cent”.
2. Be savvy with supplements
Low iron levels can be easily rectified and in some cases you may need to take a supplement, but routinely popping pills is not the answer. “You don’t need an iron supplement unless you have been diagnosed with iron-deficiency anaemia or low iron,” Marber says. “To find out, you need a blood test from your GP which will determine if your haemoglobin levels are below the normal range of 130-170g per litre for men and 120-150g per litre for women.” In some people, iron supplements can cause constipation. Among the gentlest on the gut are Blueiron (£14.99; blueiron.co.uk), which contains vitamin C-rich blueberries that help iron absorption, and Healthspan Elite Iron Complex (£10.99; healthspan.co.uk), a non-constipating formula that contains immune-boosting copper. Be careful not to take your iron supplement with milk (or at the same time as a calcium supplement) because calcium has an inhibitory action on the iron absorption.
3. Eat beet leaves, sardines and prunes
Men of all ages and women aged 50 to 64 need 8.7mg of iron a day; for women aged 19 to 50 it is 14.8mg a day; however, some people need higher amounts. Certain medical conditions can affect iron absorption — and heavy menstruation or pregnancy can cause levels to drop — but exercise also has an effect. Intense workouts can cause iron to be leeched through the gastrointestinal tract as activity draws blood away from the gut, which can cause reduced blood levels of iron over time. Some marathon runners and triathletes are prone to “foot-strike haemolysis”, where red blood cells are damaged by the feet repeatedly hitting the ground over many miles of training, which reduces haemoglobin levels. “The key thing is to eat well, with lots of iron-rich foods,” Marber says. Of the two types of dietary iron, the haem iron in meat, fish and poultry is better absorbed. “The best source is red meat, but pulses, tofu, sardines, prunes, leafy green veg and salmon all contain it,” Marber says. Add beetroot leaves to salads because they contain more iron per serving than spinach. “And consume plenty of vitamin C-rich foods, such as tomatoes, oranges, salads and fruit, as the vitamin enhances absorption of iron by the body,” Marber says. “Iron-rich vegetables also contain vitamin C, so you get the double whammy.”