Why do you need it?

Your body needs iron to grow and develop. It uses iron to make haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body, and myoglobin, a protein that takes oxygen to your muscles. Iron also makes up part of many other proteins in your body. 

There are two types of iron: 

Haem iron is found in meat and is easily absorbed but can build up in your body and cause damage. Too much haem iron encourages the production of harmful compounds called free radicals, linked to heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

Non-haem (plant) iron is absorbed by your body in smaller amounts and is not stored in your body (like haem iron) so doesn’t build up in the same way. Your body absorbs non-haem iron according to its needs, so you need a steady supply of iron-rich foods in your diet.


Iron deficiency can slow mental development and your ability to learn. It can make you feel weak and tired, weaken your immune system and lead to anaemia.

Pregnant women and children in Uganda may be at high risk of iron deficiency, due to low iron levels in their diets and lack of iron supplements, probably due to the high costs.

How much do you need?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 29 to 59 milligrams (mg) of iron a day for pre-menopausal (menstruating) women and 14 to 27 milligrams for men aged 19 and over. The wide range reflects the different rates of absorption seen in different types of diets. 

Cereals, grains and pulses are high in phytic acid which binds to iron and other minerals lowering absorption. So, the amount of iron absorbed from a diet that contains lots of these foods, such as the traditional Ugandan diet, is likely to be five to 10 per cent, less than the estimated 15 per cent absorbed from a Western-style diet containing lots of meat. Therefore, the recommended intakes are higher than, for example, in the United Kingdom. This does not mean a meaty diet is better. Wholegrains and pulses offer a wide range of health benefits and can provide a valuable source of iron and other nutrients if eaten as part of a varied, vegan diet. The key is to include lots of iron-rich plant foods like green leafy veg and pulses. You can reduce the phytate content of pulses and grains by soaking, boiling or sprouting them and vitamin C helps boost iron absorption from foods so it’s good to combine iron and vitamin C-containing foods in the same meal.

The recommended intakes for infants, children, adolescents and pregnant and lactating women are given below.

Iron bioavailability levels of five to 10 per cent are considered realistic in developing countries such as Uganda.

Recommended nutrient intakes for iron based on varying dietary iron bio-availabilities. Click to read more…
Age groupRecommended nutrient intake
Recommended nutrient intake
10% bioavailability5% bioavailability
Infants and children
6-12 months9.3*18.6*
1-3 years5.811.6
4-6 years6.312.6
7-9 years8.917.8
Females, 11-1414 or 32.7**28 or 65.4**
Females, 15-1731.062.0
Males, 11-1414.629.2
Males, 15-1718.837.6
Females, 18-50 (pre-menopausal)29.458.8
Females, 51-65+ (menopausal and post-menopausal)11.322.6
Males, 18-65+13.727.4
Pregnant woman******
Lactating woman15.030.0
*Bioavailability of iron varies widely during this period. Neonatal iron stores may be sufficient to meet the iron requirement for the first six months in full-term infants. Premature infants and low birth weight infants require additional iron.
**If menstruating (having periods).
***It’s recommended that iron supplements be given to all pregnant women. In non-anaemic pregnant women, daily supplements of 100 mg of iron (eg as ferrous sulphate) given during the second half of pregnancy are adequate. In anaemic women higher doses are usually required.
Source: WHO, FAO. 2004. Vitamin and mineral requirements in human nutrition. 2nd ed. Geneva: WHO.

Where to find iron

The best plant-based sources of iron include leafy green vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, dried fruit and other vegetables. 

  • Leafy green vegetables: Amaranth leaves and spinach are a good source of iron and can be eaten as a side dish or added to soup, stews and curries. A cup (132 grams) of cooked amaranth leaves provides around 3.0 milligrams of iron and a cup (180 grams) of cooked spinach, 5.7 milligrams.
  • Pulses: Peas, beans and lentils are a great source of iron. Popular varieties include yellow, green and split peas, red kidney beans, black beans, mung beans, cowpeas (black-eyed peas) and red ‘masoor’ lentils. They are a versatile staple in Uganda and are used in curries, soups, stews, salads or simply boiled and served as a side dish. Tofu and tempeh are a great source of iron if you can find them. A cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils provides 6.6 milligrams of iron and a cup (177 grams) of kidney beans, 5.2 milligrams. 
  • Wholegrains: Sorghum, millet, brown rice and maize provide modest amounts of iron that may contribute to your daily intake. Fortified wholegrain products, like breakfast cereals, may contain much higher amounts – check the packaging.  
  • Nuts and seeds: Cashew nuts, almonds, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame (sisim) seeds are all a good source of iron and can be eaten as snacks or added to salads and desserts. A small handful (28 grams) of cashew nuts provides 6.0 milligrams of iron and a tablespoon of sesame seeds (nine grams) 1.3 milligrams. 
  • Dried fruits, cocoa and dark chocolate: Apricots, figs and raisins can provide a boost to your iron intake as can cocoa or dark chocolate (in moderation). 
  • Other vegetables: beetroot, broccoli and sweet potatoes provide moderate amounts of iron and may contribute to your overall intake if eaten as part of a varied diet.