Iron Deficiency - Treatment

How is iron deficiency treated?

It is essential to find out why you are iron-deficient before starting any treatment.

Iron deficiency is usually treated either by increasing the amount of iron in your diet or by taking a medicine with iron in it.

Which foods contain iron?

Haem iron is the form of iron most easily absorbed by the body and is found in meat and fish. Meat also improves the absorption of non-haem iron, which is found in vegetables. A well-balanced diet that contains some meat or fish should contain adequate iron for a healthy person - supplements should not be necessary.

If you do not eat meat or fish, it is even more important to ensure that you include some or all of the following food groups in your diet:

  • Pulses: chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, and soy beans, including tofu.
  • Dark green leafy vegetables: cabbage, broccoli and kale. (Beware spinach and chard though, as they contain oxalic acid which is thought to interfere with iron absorption.)
  • Cereals, such as breakfast cereals (may also have added iron).
  • Eggs.
  • Grains: brown rice and wholemeal pasta.
  • Dried fruit: especially apricots, raisins, dates and prunes.
  • Nuts: cashews and almonds.

The following table shows some examples of the iron content of foods. It has been taken from the 'Iron Fact Sheet' produced by the United States National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements:

FoodMg per serving% daily value (DV)*
Breakfast cereal, fortified with 100% of the DV for iron, 1 serving18100
Oysters cooked with moist heat, 3 oz/85 g844
White beans, canned, 1 cup/250 ml844
Dark chocolate, 45-69% cocoa solids 3 oz/85 g739
Beef liver, pan-fried, 3 oz/85 g528
Lentils, boiled and drained, ½ cup/125 ml317
Tofu, firm, ½ cup/125 ml317
Kidney beans, canned, ½ cup/125 ml211
Sardines. canned in oil, drained solids with bone, 3 oz/85 g211
Chickpeas, boiled and drained, ½ cup/125 ml211
Tomatoes, tinned, stewed, ½ cup/125 ml211
Beef, braised, trimmed of fat, 3 oz/85 g211
Potato, baked, flesh and skin, 1 medium potato211
Cashew nuts, oil-roasted, 18 nuts (1 oz/28 g)211
Green peas, boiled, ½ cup/125 ml16
Chicken, roasted, meat and skin, 3 oz/85 g16
Enriched white long-grain rice, boiled ½ cup/125 ml16
Bread, wholewheat, 1 slice16
Bread, white, 1 slice16
Raisins, ¼ cup/60 ml16
Spaghetti, wholewheat, cooked, 1 cup/250 ml16
Tuna light, canned in water, 3 oz/75 g16
Turkey roasted, breast meat and skin, 3 oz/75 g16
Pistachio nuts, dry-roasted, 1 oz/28 g (about 50 nuts)16
Broccoli, boiled, ½ cup/125 ml16
Egg, hard boiled, 1 large16
Brown rice, cooked, 1 cup/250 ml16
Cheddar cheese, 1½ oz/45 g00
Cantaloupe melon, diced, ½ cup/125 ml00
Mushrooms, white, sliced and stir-fried, ½ cup/125 ml00
Cottage cheese 2% fat, 1 cup/250 ml00
Milk, 1 cup/250 ml00
*Daily value is the amount recommended for daily consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration

What about iron supplements?

If possible, a dietary deficiency should be treated by improving your diet. However, if your iron deficiency is due to some other cause then you may need to take iron supplements. There are several different forms of iron supplements that are available to treat iron deficiency:

  • Ferrous sulfate
  • Ferrous fumarate
  • Ferrous gluconate

These all have the potential to cause side-effects and are dangerous in overdose, so should always be kept out of the reach of children.

Are there side-effects to treatment?

Side-effects of iron supplements are common: nausea, tummy pain, diarrhoea and constipation. Side-effects may be reduced if lower doses are taken or if the medicine is taken with meals. There are also concerns that excess iron in the gut, over and above what the body needs, may be harmful in the long term, although this is not certain.

There are things you can do to help your body to absorb iron, which may reduce the side-effects of iron tablets, but also help you to absorb as much of the iron in your diet as possible. You can read more about this in the following section on prevention.

New forms of iron supplements have been created as nanoparticles. It is hoped that, in future, nanoparticle iron will be better absorbed and have fewer side-effects than currently available forms.

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Author:
Dr Jacqueline Payne
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Hannah Gronow
Document ID:
29400 (v1)
Last Checked:
26 May 2017
Next Review:
26 June 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.