As exam season starts, the sight of tired, stressed out young women swotting over their books will be a common one. However, the pale face and lack of energy may not be solely down to burning the candle at both ends. It could be because most young women are not getting enough iron in their diets.

Two out of five (42%) 15-18 year olds and one in three (33%) 19-24 year olds who took part in the Food Standards Agency's National Diet and Nutrition Survey have low iron stores, which, if left unchecked, could lead to iron deficiency or anaemia.

Iron deficiency is an unpleasant medical condition. Symptoms include tiredness and lethargy, difficulty in concentrating and a shortened attention span - none of which is good news if you're trying to cram in the revision.

Young women are particularly vulnerable to being low in iron because during their teenage years and early twenties they experience growth spurts, as well as starting their periods. This, in turn, is made worse if they are not getting enough iron in their diet.

The recommended daily iron intake for young women is 14.8 milligrams (mg), which can be achieved by following a balanced and varied diet and including plenty of iron-rich foods such as roast beef, baked beans, boiled eggs, spring greens, canned sardines, fortified breakfast cereal and cashew nuts.

A recent FSA survey revealed that most young women did not even know that they should be trying to pump up their iron stores.


- Nearly half of the young women questioned (43%) didn't know that not including iron in their diet could lead to serious health problems.

- Three out of five (60%) admitted to making no effort to include iron in their diet.

- Two out of three (68%) had suffered from the symptoms commonly associated with being low on iron - such as tiredness and lethargy, looking pale, feeling faint or suffering from breathlessness. However, only 29% had ever had it suggested to them that they might be suffering from lack of iron.

- The first thing nearly 40% of young women think of doing when they are feeling run down is cutting back on the late nights - only 7% would consider making changes to their diet.

'Making sure that young women get enough iron in their diet is really important, especially when they're in their teens and early twenties, because this is when they are likely to be particularly vulnerable to being low on iron.

'It's easy to include iron-rich foods in your diet but it seems that a lot of young women just aren't getting enough, and, worryingly, many don't even know that they should be trying to boost their iron intake.

'Nobody likes to feel tired and rundown. By packing more iron-rich foods into their diets young women can make sure that lack of iron isn't the cause of their zapped energy levels during the stressful exam period.'


Pumping up your iron stores can be easily achieved, but one in four young women (26%) confessed that they would have trouble identifying any foods that might be rich in iron.

Encouragingly, two out of five (42%) of the young women questioned knew that green veggies were a good iron bet and nearly one in four (23%) pointed to liver as being packed with iron.

- Only 17% knew that reaching across the breakfast table and grabbing a box of fortified breakfast cereal would be a good source of iron.

- Only 12% correctly named that good old staple baked beans, and just 10% knew that boiled eggs are high in iron.

- Only 9% named red meat as a good source of iron. But red meat is one of the real power players in the iron world. As a general rule, the darker the meat the more iron it contains.

- And only 2% thought of dried figs - just by snacking on 4 dried figs - you can get over a quarter of your daily iron fix in one hit!

Other unsung iron heroes include dried fruit, nuts, dark turkey meat and canned sardines.


- Red meat (beef, lamb, pork, offal) is rich in iron that is easily absorbed. The darker the meat, the more iron it contains.

- Poultry contains some iron, and leg meat contains more iron than breast meat.

- Fish contains some iron too, especially oily fish and molluscs(mussels, etc.)


- Green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and kale, contain some iron.

- Salad vegetables (including tomatoes) contain vitamin C and help the body to absorb iron.

- Eating fresh fruit or drinking fruit juice with meals greatly improves iron absorption.


2 thick slices of lean roast beef
Average serving size 90g
Iron supplied 2.3mg

3 tablespoons of baked beans
Average serving size 120g
Iron supplied 1.7mg

A boiled egg
Average serving size 50g
Iron supplied 1mg

Wholemeal bread (1 average slice)
Average serving size 36g
Iron supplied 1mg

Sardines canned in oil (average sandwich filling)
Average serving size 50g
Iron supplied 1.5mg

An average bowl of fortified breakfast cereal
Average serving size 45g
Iron supplied 3mg

4 dried figs
Average serving size 80g
Iron supplied 3.4mg

Dark roast turkey meat (average serving)
Average serving size 120g
Iron supplied 1.7mg

A tablespoonful of sesame seeds
Average serving size 12g
Iron supplied 1.2mg

Spring greens, boiled
Average serving size 90g
Iron supplied 1.3mg

A portion of lamb's liver, fried or stewed (women should avoid liver when they're pregnant)
Average serving size 100g
Iron supplied 10mg



- fortified breakfast cereal, such as wholewheat biscuits with semi-skimmed milk

- poached egg, baked beans, grilled tomato, two reduced-fat sausages, wholemeal toast

- a glass of orange or grapefruit juice with one of these breakfasts


- chicken salad (watercress, grilled lean chicken without the skin, tomatoes, raw grated carrot)

- sardines on wholemeal toast

- bean salad (chickpeas, red kidney beans, butter beans, onion, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, cucumber, tomato)

- pitta bread with houmous, red pepper and celery

- a glass of juice or a smoothie with one of these lunches


- beef or vegetable stir-fry

- low-fat grilled beefburger in a bun and oven chips

- spaghetti bolognese with lamb mince, peas and kidney beans (for a vegetarian option use soya mince and lentils)

- a glass of juice with the above or some fruit (fresh, frozen, tinned or dried) to follow


- almonds

- dried apricots or raisins

- small bar of dark chocolate

- slice of gingerbread cake

- small flapjack


Another thing you need to be aware of, when you're looking to boost your iron intake, is how your body absorbs this important mineral.

Here are some ways to increase the amount of iron your body absorbs:

- Eat meat, poultry or fish at the same time as green veg or beans. This is because the meat, as well as containing iron itself, helps us absorb iron from other foods containing iron, if we have them at the same time.

- Include fruit and vegetables that are high in vitamin C as part of your meals. Try a glass of orange juice with breakfast, a tomato salad at lunchtime and a piece of fruit with your evening meal. This is because vitamin C helps you absorb iron from food.

- Don't drink tea at mealtimes or for half an hour afterwards. This is because the tannins in tea reduce the amount of iron we absorb from food.

Iron is really important for a healthy diet and tip-top energy levels. So follow our tips and pack in the iron-rich foods to make sure you truly are an iron lady.

Food Standards Agency UK