Red meat and iron

Last updated: October 2015

Red meat and ironIron is essential for the formation of haemoglobin in red blood cells. The healthy adult body contains 3-4g of iron, more than half of which is in the form of haemoglobin. Iron also plays an important role in the immune system and is required for normal energy metabolism. 

Dietary Iron
There are two forms of dietary iron, haem iron from animal sources including red meat and non haem iron from cereals, fruit, pulses and vegetables.  Approximately 15-35% of haem iron is absorbed by the body, compared to an absorption rate of less than 10% for non haem iron from plant sources.

Tea and some forms of dietary fibre can reduce absorption of non haem iron.  Conversely foods containing vitamin C, meat, poultry and fish can improve the absorption of non haem iron.

Contribution of red meat to iron intake
Meat and meat products provide 17% of total dietary iron intakes in the UK (1).   Because red meat offers a more easily available source of iron and absorption is not affected by other dietary factors meat eaters tend to maintain a better iron status than people who do not consume meat.

Consequences of insufficient dietary iron
Iron deficiency is a worldwide problem, in the UK it is a common deficiency which often goes undiagnosed and affects large number of groups in the population.  A lack of iron in the diet depletes the body’s store of iron and eventually results in iron deficiency anaemia.   Iron deficiency reduces the ability of blood to transport oxygen around the body with many detrimental effects including fatigue and impaired development in babies and young children.

UK iron intakes
Groups at risk of iron deficiency include toddlers, girls and women of reproductive age, and adults aged over 65 years. Between 25-40% of women aged 19-49 years have iron intakes from food that are likely to be inadequate.  Similarly 44-48% of girls aged 11-18 years and 12-24% of children aged 1½ - 3½ had intakes below the minimum recommended amount. 

The requirements for iron are higher in women of reproductive age (because of menstrual losses) than in men and are also higher in adolescents than in adults.  

Dietary Advice 
Iron can be obtained from a variety of foods and we should aim to eat a mixture of these foods each day.

Food Sources of Iron     

  mg/100g   mg/100g
Calves liver, fried 12.2 Chocolate, plain 2.3
Cocoa powder 10.5 Eggs, chicken boiled 1.9
Cornflakes, fortified 7.9 Cubed lamb, grilled 1.8
Lambs liver, fried 7.7 Bread, white 1.6
Pork liver pate 6.4 Chocolate, milk 1.4
Lentils, green dried, boiled 3.5 Pork spare ribs, grilled 1.4
Apricots, semi-dried, as eaten 3.4 Lean pork tenderloin, grilled 1.3
Lean leg of lamb, roast 3.1 Lean pork leg, roasted 1.2
Sardines, in tomato sauce 2.9 Pork sausages, roasted 1.1
Lean braised beef 2.7 Broccoli, boiled 1.0
Red kidney beans, dried, boiled 2.5 Chicken, roast meat only, average 0.8
Lean beef rump steak, grilled 2.5 Salmon 0.8
Lean topside, roasted 2.5 Back bacon rashers, grilled 0.7
Beef burgers, grilled 2.5 Bananas 0.3
Soy sauce 2.4  Cod, fillet, baked 0.1
Bread, wholemeal 2.4    


In Conclusion
Red meat is a particularly good source of haem iron which is better absorbed  by the body and can assist in the absorption of non haem iron from plant and cereals sources.  Iron deficiency can have a debilitating effect on health and often goes undiagnosed.  The groups most at risk of becoming iron deficient are toddlers, girls and women of reproductive age, and adults aged over 65 years

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1 Henderson L, Irving K, et al. (2003). The National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Adults Aged 19-64 Years. Volume 3 Vitamin and mineral intake and urinary analytes. London, The Stationery Office.