Women’s Health Week: Iron + Women

Iron + Women

– the forever changing needs of iron over a woman’s lifespan

Iron + Our Needs

Did you know that Iron Deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world? To kick start women’s health week, I thought it would make sense to talk about Iron. Why? Well a woman’s iron requirements change many many times during her lifetime. Let’s have a deeper look at the changing Iron needs across the lifespan, common iron inhibiting foods and ways to adequately meet your individual needs.

Iron is an essential mineral. It is found in the red blood cells which carry oxygen to the body and also helps your immune system function.

So how much do we actually need?

Toddler years (boys & girls) 7mg / day
Teenage girls 14-18 years 15mg/day
Non pregnant women (19-50 years) 18mg / day
Pre-menopausal women 18mg / day
Post-menopausal women (51 years +) 8mg / day
Pregnant women *especially 2nd and 3rd trimesters 27mg/day
Lactating women 9mg / day

How do we know when we are low?

The following symptoms are common when iron levels are low:

  • Fatigue & difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired immunity
  • Reduced physical ability to work (e.g. exercise)
  • Pale skin
  • Shortness of breath, dizziness & headaches
  • Brittle nails, cracking at the side of the mouth
  • decreased energy

Who’s at greatest risk?

  • Getting too little iron in the diet as a result of a poor diet or vegetarianism
  • Losing too much iron through bleeding from heavy menstrual periods
  • Pregnancy can cause iron deficiency due to the baby demands of iron from the mother’s stores
  • Growth spurts such as during your toddler & teenage years
  • Athletes, particularly those engaged in endurance sports, may also be susceptible as iron can be lost through sweating.
  • Ilcers or certain medications (ie – aspirin)

Iron – rich foods?

Iron is found in many different foods but the most absorbable form is haem iron (haem = blood) which is found in organ meats, beef, veal, chicken, pork, fish & seafood.

There is also non-haem (plant based) sources of iron available in the foods we eat. The most valuable sources of non-haem iron include tofu, eggs, legumes, lentils & beans (think kidney beans, green lentils, chickpeas), fortified cereals (WeetBix, AllBran), nuts and seeds, wholegrain pasta, rolled oats, brown rice, wholegrain bread, vegetables especially spinach & broccoli and dried apricots

What foods are iron inhibitors?

Unfortunately, we know that there are some key iron inhibitors- which makes iron absorption from non-haem sources more challenging. These inhibitors include:

  • calcium (like iron) competes for absorption in the body.
  • TIP: Avoid calcium-rich foods such as dairy and calcium supplements with or around mealtimes.
  • found in tea, coffee and red wine
  • TIP: Avoid drinking tea & coffee within 30 minutes of the main iron-containing meal
Phytates A type of antioxidants found in wholegrains, legumes, nuts & seeds (i.e. where you find lots of non-haem iron)

TIP: Unfortunately, not much you can do about this

Zinc Often found in similar foods to iron-rich foods is another mineral that competes for absorption in the body.

TIP: Unfortunately, not much you can do about this


As opposed to iron-inhibitors, we know of a few iron-enhancers – which can, as implied, aid iron absorption.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • found in tomatoes, broccoli, capsicums, citrus, kiwi, strawberries and lots of other fruits and veggies helps with the absorption of non-haem iron.
  • TIP: Try eating vitamin C rich foods with vegetarian meals to increase the amount of iron absorbed.
Other acids (citric acid) Can help with absorption

TIP: Add some vinegar or lemon or other citrus juice to your leafy greens to aid with the iron absorption.

Still lost?

It is best to first have a blood test to determine your iron levels. After this time, if you are still unsure whether you are having the right amount and type of iron, book in with a dietitian (me) to further explore your diet, your needs depending upon your age and lifestyle and ways to get the most out of the foods you eat.

To make a booking with Emma, click ‘Make a Booking’ in the top right-hand corner of this page and follow the prompts. You can also call our friendly team on 9822 4999 (Armadale) or 9486 0512 (East Melbourne), or email us on fitwise@fitwise.com.au


  1. Nutrient Reference Values https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/iron
  2. Eat for Health https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au
  3.  Gastroenterological Society of Australia (GESA) http://www.gesa.org.au
  4.  Health Direct https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/iron-deficiency-symptoms
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