How to treat and prevent iron deficiency with a dietary plan

This article is available in Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian.

Published in colaboration with nutritionist Julie Saraiva Pais.

Iron deficiency is prevalent among individuals and more prominent in women in the fertile period (through blood losses during menstruation), high performing athletes, pregnant women, and vegetarians.

Iron is not produced endogenously. Thus, foods or dietary supplementation are our only sources of iron.

In addition to that, iron has low bioavailability, which is why paying attention to this mineral in the diet is crucial for clients' wellbeing.

This article will explore the importance of iron consumption and how we can prevent potential deficiencies.


The importance of iron

Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, an erythrocyte (red blood cell) protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. In addition to that, it is also important for a healthy immune system.

People with iron deficiency often experience fatigue, palpitations, tiredness or lack of energy, shortness of breath, pale skin, and in some cases, anemia.

There are two different types of iron:

  • nonheme iron, found in plant-based sources (nuts, beans, vegetables, and fortified grain products) with a bioavailability of approximately 5%.

  • heme iron is present in animal sources (lean meat and seafood), with a bioavailability of approximately 40%.

Most dietary supplements are derived from nonheme sources, so it is important to consider this lower percentage of bioavailability when considering supplementation.

So it is safe to say that the major concern when it comes to iron intake is not its content in food or the diet, but its bioavailability.

How to treat and prevent iron deficiency with a dietary plan?

The iron status assessment depends almost entirely on hematological indicators, even though this method can sometimes not represent the whole picture. Therefore, a complementary approach is to consider how iron intakes from the diet and dietary supplements compare with recommended intakes.

Before we move into how to treat and prevent iron deficiencies, it is important to know the population recommendations.

According to the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Insitute of Medicine (IOM) the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) of iron is:

Male Female Pregnancy Breastfeeding
up to 6 months 0.27 mg* 0.27 mg*
7-12 months 11 mg 11 mg
1-3 years 7 mg 7 mg
4-8 years 10 mg 10 mg
9-13 years 8 mg 8 mg
14-18 years 11 mg 15 mg 27 mg 10 mg
19-50 years 8 mg 18 mg 27 mg 9 mg
51+ years 8 mg 8 mg

*Adequate Intake

According to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) here are the Reccommended Nutrient Intakes (RNI) of iron for the United Kingdom:

Male Female
0-3 months 1.7 mg 1.7 mg
4-6 months 4.3 mg 4.3 mg
7-12 months 7.8 mg 7.8 mg
1-3 years 6.9 mg 6.9 mg
4-6 years 6.1 mg 6.1 mg
7-10 years 8.7 mg 8.7 mg
11-18 years 11.3 mg 14.8 mg
19-50 years 8.7 mg 14.8 mg
+51 years 8.7 mg 8.7 mg

Several aspects should be taken into account to treat iron deficiency, such as ethology, stage of deficiency, and treatment period, to determine the strategy to be addressed.

Special populations should also be considered, such as athletes (female athletes in particular), pregnant women, and vegetarians/vegans. These individuals normally have higher iron needs or consume foods with low-bioavailability iron, compared with the general population.

As a nutrition professional, it is important to teach clients about this nutrition deficiency and give them tools to find the best sources and strategies to improve their health.

Soure of heme iron (high bioavailability):

  • red meat (beef, lamb and pork);
  • fish;
  • seafood;
  • liver;
  • egg.

Some cooking methods can vary this mineral's bioavailability.

Sources of nonheme iron:

  • legumes (such as beans, peas, and lentils);
  • dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, cabbage, and broccoli)
  • tofu;
  • cinnamon;
  • whole cereals;
  • fortified cereals;
  • nuts and seeds.

Strategies to increase iron absorption

To increase iron absorption, it is important to mix foods from animal sources and plant sources. This is because heme iron increases the bioavailability of nonheme iron.

Foods such as coffee, tea, and sources of calcium such as milk or milk products can decrease iron absorption by 50% to 70%, so it is not advisable to combine these foods with a meal rich in iron.

The importance of Vitamin C in the absorption of iron

Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron in the diet, so eating vegetables high in this vitamin, combined with iron-rich foods, is advised to improve iron absorption.

Foods such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, peppers, parsley, green peas, broccoli, and citric fruits such as oranges, kiwi, and strawberries can improve the iron absorption in the diet.

Legumes and iron absorption

Legumes are a good source of iron nonheme. However, they also have anti-nutrients in their composition (phytates, oxalates, and others), decreasing the absorption of different minerals, such as iron.

For this reason, it is advisable to soak the legumes for 24 hours before eating or cooking them to break down the phytic acid and other anti-nutrients to make them more digestible.

How to monitor the quantity of iron in meal plans

Nutrium is a platform that allows nutrition professionals to create personalized meal plans with detailed information of different micronutrients.

Professionals can quickly check the iron content in foods and how they compare with one another.

Professionals can also create meal plans that ensure this mineral's correct consumption in the diet.

The software has included the recommendations adapted to different populations and certified entities: the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).

The meal plan below shows the micronutrient profile of a meal plan developed for 36-year-old men.

The same meal plan might not be adequate when it comes to iron (among other factors) for pregnant women because their micronutrient and energy needs are different.

With Nutrium, it is possible to know the specific micronutrient needs according to age and gender and adjust the meal plan accordingly.

For that, professionals just need to access the Meals page in the client profile to create a personalized meal plan.


Adequate intake of iron should be ensured by a healthy and varied diet, except in particular cases when supplementation or other interventions are needed.

In Nutrium, it is possible to create meal plans with a high or low amount of fiber in a few minutes.

Enjoy or 14-day free trial and explore our meal planning feature.