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Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin in your blood.

The main functions of iron are to help supply oxygen to the blood, to help the body resist disease, to promote red blood cell formation, and to maintain proper metabolism.

The body contains an average of 4g of iron, most of which is present in haemoglobin and the remainder is stored in the liver, spleen and bone marrow. A small amount is present as myoglobin which acts as an oxygen store in muscle tissue.

Iron deficiency

Iron deficiency (a common condition) can lead to anaemia which is where the iron stores in the body have become depleted and haemoglobin synthesis is inhibited. Symptoms include tiredness, lack of stamina, breathlessness, depression, dim vision and poor memory, all of which are associated with decreased oxygen supply to tissues and organs. Iron deficiency in infants can result in impaired learning ability and behavioural problems. There are two dietary forms of iron, haem iron, found in animal tissues, and non haem, present in plant foods. The amount of iron absorbed from various foods ranges from 1% up to 10% for animal foods.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C greatly increases the absorption of non haem iron, that is fresh uncooked fruits and vegetables. Foods particularly rich in vitamin C include fresh leafy green vegetables, green peppers and fruit. Citric acid, sugars, amino acids (protein) can also promote iron absorption. Iron absorption can also be influenced by the amount of iron in the diet. Lowered levels of iron in the diet result in improved absorption. Keep up those green salads to accompany the dinner meal or fresh fruit salad!

Tea and coffee

Tea and coffee inhibit the absorption of iron, by over 50%. If you do drink tea or coffee, try to drink them between your meals. Iron absorption is also impaired by an alkalinity in the intestine, radiation, bran, phosphates, or by infections.

Good sources of iron for vegetarians: Chick peas, liquorice, muesli, spinach, silverbeet, haricot beans, molasses, dried apricots, figs, brewers yeast, fresh wheatgerm.

(single servings, listed from highest to lowest)

Fair sources: Boiled egg, avocado, asparagus, wholemeal bread, broccoli, brown rice.

Poor sources: Milk (cow’s), cheese, yoghurt, banana.

Despite iron from plant foods being less readily absorbed, research has shown that vegetarians are no more likely to suffer from iron deficiency than non-vegetarians. Draper & Wheeler (1989)have stated there is no indication of increased prevalence of iron deficiency amongst vegetarians. Anderson (1981) found the iron status of vegetarians to be adequate despite a high intake of fibre and phytate.

(Information sources: Anderson, B. et al (1981). The Iron and Zinc status of Long Term Vegetarian Women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition v. 34 (6) p. 1042-1048. Draper, a. & Wheeler, E. (1989). the diet and Food Choice of Vegetarians in Greater London. Centre of Human Nutrition, London.)

Required intakes

The former RDA, Recommended Daily Amounts, have now been replaced by the term Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI). The RNI is the amount of nutrient which is enough for at least 97% of the population.


  • 0-3 months: 1.7 mg/day
  • 4-6 months: 4.3mg/day
  • 7-12 months: 7.8mg/day
  • 1-3 years: 6.9mg/day
  • 4-6 years: 6.1mg/day
  • 7-10 years: 8.7mg/day
Teen boys up to adult males

  • 11 – 18 years: 11.3mg/day
  • 19+ years: 8.7mg/day
Teen girls to adult females

  • 11 – 49 years: 14.8mg/day
  • 50+ years: 8.7 mg/day

Extra iron is required by women during pregnancy and breast feeding. In women loss of iron from menstruation of blood adds considerably to iron need. The losses are variable. Research shows that 10% women of child bearing age will need more iron than the RNI indicates.

Sample meal plan for one day

This will meet the RNI of 14.8mg of iron for a woman aged between 11-49 years. This is only a sample to give an indication of the iron component. Variety is essential for a good healthy diet.

If you require any dietary advice, please consult a reputable (vegetarian-friendly) naturopath.


  • Bowl of muesli and milk 2.75mg
  • 1 slice of toast 1.0mg
  • Fresh fruit (for vitamin C)

  • 2 slices of wholemeal bread 2.0mg
  • Peanut butter 0.5mg
  • Banana 0.5mg

  • Brown Rice (200g/7oz) 0.94mg
  • Chick peas 6.2mg
  • Broccoli (100g/4oz) 1.0mg
  • Fresh salad vegetables, or Fruit (for vitamin C)

Total iron intake: 14.9mg