Iron and the Irony of Popeye

Iron is a mineral which is required for the production of haemoglobin in the body, essential for carrying oxygen to the cells in our body. Without adequate levels, you may feel tired, look pale and be irritable. Severe deficiency can lead to iron deficient anaemia, but this can be resolved with a good diet or in extreme cases, iron supplementation.

The reference nutrient intake for woman aged 11-50, including pregnant women, is 14.8mg iron per day, while men, and women over 50 years, need around 8.7mg per day. Making sure you get enough from your diet will help prevent iron-deficiency anaemia, however, too much (over 20mg) can cause side effects such as constipation, nausea, vomiting or stomach pain.

You should be able to get enough iron from your diet. The source however, is important in terms of bioavailability, or how much of the mineral can be absorbed by your body.

There are two types or dietary iron, haem and non-haem. This is reference to haemoglobin, or red blood cells. Haem iron found in animal products is easily absorbed by our body. Non-haem iron is found in plant foods, but the body finds it harder to absorb in comparison to the haem version; taking vitamin C with plant sources of iron can increase our body’s ability to absorb it. Vegetable and fruits are naturally high in vitamin C, and can also contain iron, e.g. watercress. Additionally, watch out for food and drinks that contain high levels of tannins e.g. tea and coffee, or phytates and oxylates e.g. spinach (sorry Popeye) and milk chocolate, which can inhibit the absorption of the mineral. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt can also interfere with absorption as the casein and certain forms of calcium can inhibit iron absorption. A varied and balanced diet should provide enough nutrition to balance any loss of absorption.

Sources of haem iron include:

  • Liver
  • Meat e.g. beef and lamb
  • Seafood e.g. mussels and oysters

Non-heam sources

Sources of non-haem iron include:

  • Beans and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds e.g. sunflower and pumpkin seeds
  • Dried fruit e.g apricots and figs
  • Wholegrains e.g. brown rice and wholemeal bread
  • Most dark green leafy vegetables e.g. watercress (raw), kale and beet greens (lightly cooked)


The month of October see the likes of kale, mussels, oysters and cabbage come into season, so why not take inspiration of these delicious nutrient rich vegetable and seafood available on the BBC Food website.

So while the debatable story goes that Popeye was popping cans of spinach for strength based on a misplaced decimal, there are certainly many other, and better ways to get iron in your diet.

If you do take supplements that contain iron, don’t take too much as it could be harmful – anything less than 17mg a day is unlikely to cause harm. However, speak to your GP or dietitian for more advice.

By Pippa

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