Iron is vital for growth and good health

ExercisingIron is vital to all body cells. It functions essentially as a carrier of oxygen in the body, and as a part of haemoglobin in the blood and as myoglobin in the muscles.

Iron deficiency anaemia occurs when there isn’t enough iron in the red blood cells [RBCs].

Anaemia is deficiency of red blood cells. The condition can lead to lack of oxygen-carrying ability, causing abnormal fatigue and other symptoms. Iron deficiency anaemia is a common problem during pregnancy, or when there is blood loss, a diet low in iron, or poor absorption of iron by our body.

Iron fact file

  • Total iron in the human body is about 3-5 gm
  • It’s a mineral found in every cell of the body
  • It gives our blood its characteristic colour
  • 70-85 per cent of iron present in our body is found in the blood
  • Women have much lower amounts of iron in storage than men
  • About 90 per cent of iron in the body is recovered and reused everyday
  • Iron absorption increases during iron deficiency, menstruation, pregnancy, puberty and after blood loss
  • People consuming excessive antacids on a daily basis can also develop iron deficiency, as it can interfere with iron absorption.

What iron does for you

  • It’s an important component of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen to various cells of the body
  • It’s part of myoglobin which maintains oxygen store in the muscles
  • Helps to maintain normal stomach lining
  • Aids in maintaining body temperature
  • Boosts immunity and protects against infection
  • Improves attention span, learning ability and intellectual performance
  • Iron is food for your brain cells.

Iron intake

Age group Iron [mg per day]
Adult/man 28
Adult/woman 30
Pregnancy 38
Children [4-6 years] 18
Male [10-12 years] 34
Female [10-12 years] 19
Male [16-18 years] 50
Female [16-18 years] 30

– Source: Nutritive Value of Indian Foods. C Gopalan. 2004.

Note: There is increased iron requirement for pregnant mothers. Special preparations can be made from ajwain, methi seeds, til, garden cress seeds, saunf. These foods are called galactogogues; they are rich in iron and help produce more milk. Endurance athletes [marathon runners] need more iron as compared to other people [70-75 mg per day]. The increased requirement is mainly due to destruction of red blood cells [RBCs], muscle injuries, loss of iron through sweat, and insufficient time to reabsorb iron. To prevent sports anaemia, athletes need to eat plenty of iron-rich foods.

Foods and cooking methods that enhance iron absorption:

  • Foods rich in vitamin C like orange, orange juice, lime, guava, lemon, amla, sprouts, capsicum and cucumber
  • Foods cooked in iron utensils
  • Baking and germination.

Meal alternatives

Breakfast. Poha, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, multigrain breads, garden cress seeds, and porridge made with jaggery.

Snacks. Roasted chana, bhel with moong and pomegranate, lotus stem chaat, til chikki, dates, raisins, dried apricots, pattice [made with soy[ chunks, brown bread, potatoes, methi leaves and pomegranate].

Lunch/Dinner. Bajra rotla, soy flour rotis or thepla or khakra, green leafy vegetables like amaranth, colocasia [can be used as vegetable dish or stuffing for parathas], pudina raita, parsley potatoes, broccoli, sesame chicken, or paneer, dried fish. Beef, liver, brain, kidney, lean red meat, and shrimp, are, however, not recommended for people who have high blood cholesterol and/or obesity.

Things to avoid if you are eating the foods cited above:

  • Tea and tamarind [high in phenols and tannins]
  • Raw fruits and vegetables with skin and seeds, isabgol, corn, whole wheat flour and spinach [high in fibre]
  • Almonds, cashew nut, coconut, walnuts, khas khas [poppy seeds] and pan [betel leaves]. High in zinc.


Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common nutritional disorder in the world.

People at risk:

  • Menstruating women [women with heavy periods]
  • Strict vegetarians
  • Children and teenagers
  • Pregnant women
  • People who donate blood regularly
  • People on crash diets [commonly observed among models, air-hostesses and BPO employees]
  • Long-distance runners
  • People with stomach or intestinal problems
  • Patients on dialysis.

Iron deficiency basically means less than adequate iron levels in the body. Common signs of anaemia are:

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Paleness
  • Brittle nails [nails become spoon-shaped]
  • Dull hair
  • Rapid breathing on exertion
  • Skin changes
  • Smooth tongue
  • Many iron-deficient people develop an unusual craving for ice-cubes, or clay, or starch, or sand.


Food Product Quantity [mg] Iron
Bajra 1 thich chapatti [30mg] 2.4
Poha [rice flakes] 1 katori [30gm] 6.0
Chana [roasted] 1 katori [30gm] 3.0
Soybean 1 katori [20gm] 2.0
Pudina 1 katori [50gm] 8.0
Amarnath leaves 1 katori [50 gm] 11.0
Colocasia leaves 1 katori [50gm] 5.0
Red meat 2-3 medium size pcs [90gm] 2.0
Dried fish 2 pcs [35gm] 7.0
Lotus stem Half pc [100gm] 61.0
Dates [dried] 100gm 7.3
Raisins 100gm 7.7
Til 1 teaspoon [5gm] 0.5
Garden cress seeds 1 teaspoon [5gm] 5.0
Jaggery 1 teaspoon [5gm] 0.2

Things to Do

  • Consume more of iron-rich foods, or foods fortified with iron combined with vitamin C
  • Eat a variety of foods
  • Maintain weight within the desirable range
  • Avoid excessive saturated fats
  • Eat foods with adequate starch
  • Avoid too much of sugar and salt
  • Avoid overcooking of foods
  • Restrict smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
  • Ferrous sulphate is the cheapest and best absorbed iron salt [it is best prescribed by your physician]
  • Iron supplements are advised only in conditions where diet alone cannot restore deficient iron levels to normal. Iron supplements should be taken only when prescribed by your doctor, and for a stipulated period of time.

Most important. Excessive intake of iron can damage your liver, cause stomach upset, skin pigmentation. It can also lead to diabetes and heart failure. Speak to your nutritionist/therapist for optimal dosages/intake in tune with your individual needs, or requirement.

Payal Ahuja
Payal Ahuja is a Mumbai-based dietician and consultant. She conducts workshops on lifestyle management and weight management programmes on TV. Ahuja is also IPC-certified auditor for ISO-9001:2000, and author of the book, Combating Childhood Obesity.


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