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Eating for exams

Teenage girl sitting

Feeling tired and stressed? You're not the only one. But it might not just be your looming exams - it's possible you're not getting enough iron in your diet.

If you're a young woman, you're most at risk of being low in iron because of your monthly period and because you're still growing. So it's really important to make sure you're eating enough iron-rich foods.

Check out your iron know-how

  • Do you realise that the following symptoms: tiredness, lethargy, looking pale, feeling faint and breathlessness are associated with a shortage of iron?
  • Do you know that not including enough iron in your diet could lead to serious health problems?
  • Do you make an effort to include foods that are rich in iron in your diet?
  • When they're feeling run down lots of people think of cutting back on the late nights. But would you think about changing your diet?
If you answered 'yes' to all these questions, well done! You know your iron facts. If not, then you'd better read on and get your iron know-how up to speed.


When you're short of iron - known as iron deficiency - it isn't pleasant. The symptoms can include:

  • tiredness and lethargy
  • difficulty concentrating and shortened attention span - not good news if you're trying to revise
  • looking pale and feeling faint
  • breathlessness
And the news gets worse, because if you've got iron deficiency and you don't do anything about it, you could end up with anaemia. But don't worry, the news isn't all bad, because it's easy to get enough iron.

meat beef cooked

Young women should be having 14.8 milligrams (mg) iron a day (men need 8.7mg a day).

You can easily pump up your iron stores, but first you need to know which foods are rich in iron:

  • roast beef and other red meat (beef, lamb, pork, offal) are rich in iron that is easy for the body to absorb. The darker the meat, the more iron it contains
  • chicken contains some iron - choose leg meat rather than breast meat if you want to get more iron
  • baked beans
  • boiled eggs
  • canned sardines or other oily fish and mussels
  • breakfast cereals with added vitamins and minerals
  • green leafy vegetables, such as watercress, kale, spring greens and broccoli
  • dried fruit such as raisins, figs, apricots and prunes
  • wholemeal bread
  • lentils, beans and peas
  • nuts such as peanuts, cashew nuts, almonds and brazils
  • seeds such as sesame and sunflower
Here are a couple of iron tips:
  • Try cutting down on tea and coffee as this could help to improve iron levels in the body. This is because tea and coffee contains a substance which can bind with iron making it harder for the body to absorb it.
  • Eating fresh fruit or salad vegetables (including tomatoes) or drinking fruit juice (all of which contain vitamin C) with meals might help the body absorb the iron in food.

food average serving size iron supplied
2 thick slices of lean roast beef 90g 2.3mg
3 tablespoons of baked beans 120g 1.7mg
a boiled egg 50g 1mg
wholemeal bread (1 average slice) 36g 1mg
sardines canned in oil (average sandwich filling) 50g 1.5mg
average bowl of breakfast cereal (fortified with vitamins and minerals) 45g 3mg
4 dried figs 80g 3.4mg
dark roast turkey meat (average serving) 120g 1.7mg
a tablespoonful of sesame seeds 12g 1.2mg
spring greens, boiled 90g 1.3mg

Liver is another rich source of iron, but it is also very high in vitamin A. So if you eat liver or liver products such as pâté every week, you might want to choose not to have it more often and you should also avoid taking supplements containing vitamin A or fish liver oils (which are high in vitamin A).


Here are some ideas for quick and simple meals and snacks to boost your iron intake.


  • breakfast cereal fortified with vitamins and minerals, such as wholewheat biscuits with semi-skimmed milk
  • poached egg, baked beans, grilled tomato, two reduced-fat sausages, wholemeal toast
  • all washed down with a glass of orange or grapefruit juice
  • chicken salad - you could have watercress, grilled lean chicken without the skin, tomatoes and raw grated carrot
  • sardines on wholemeal toast
  • bean salad - made with chickpeas, red kidney beans, butter beans, onion, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, cucumber and tomato
  • pitta bread with houmous, red pepper and celery
  • beef or vegetable stir-fry
  • low-fat grilled beefburger in a bun with oven chips
  • spaghetti bolognese with lamb mince, peas and kidney beans (for a vegetarian option you could use soya mince and lentils)
  • almonds
  • dried apricots or raisins
  • small bar of dark chocolate

  • slice of gingerbread cake
  • small flapjack
If you're worried about your iron levels, speak to your school nurse, your GP or a nurse at your local GP practice. They will be able to give you advice and they might give you a blood test, which will tell you if you are anaemic.

Check out these food diaries

See how much iron these teenagers and young women are getting from their daily diets. We asked each of them to complete a food diary for a week and then gave them the low-down on how much iron they were getting.

Susannah Allen

Susannah Allen: age 18, A level student

Average daily iron intake: 9.27mg (the recommendation is 14.8mg a day).

Throughout the week nearly a third of Susannah's iron came from white bread, which she had as toast on most mornings.

Susannah could increase her iron intake by eating more iron-rich meats, such as lamb or beef, plus green leafy vegetables. Swapping the white bread for wholemeal bread would also help boost her iron levels.
Susannah said: 'When I feel tired or run down I wouldn't normally think about whether how much iron there is in the food that I'm eating has affected my energy levels.

'Swapping wholemeal bread for the white bread that I normally eat sounds like an easy way to boost my iron intake. I will also make more of an effort to eat more vegetables and foods that are rich in vitamin C in the future.'

Eleanor Gill

Eleanor Gill: age 16, student
Average daily iron intake: 11.58mg (the recommendation is 14.8mg a day).

Eleanor's main source of iron throughout the week came from her breakfast where she had either fortified cereal or toast.

However, as part of her breakfast, she also often had a cup of tea, which may have decreased the amount of iron her body actually absorbed.

Including more foods in her meals that are rich in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, peppers or citrus fruit, would be a healthy choice and might also help Eleanor to absorb more iron.

Eleanor said: 'I did know it was important to include iron in my diet but I've never really thought about how much I might be getting or what foods might be rich in iron.'

Olivia Jacobs

Olivia Jacobs: age 22, personal trainer
Average daily iron intake: 9.36mg (the recommendation is 14.8mg a day).

As a personal trainer, Olivia leads an active lifestyle and consciously tries to include a good number of fruit, vegetables and nuts in her daily diet, many of which are high in iron or rich in vitamin C.

However, her iron intake was still below the recommended daily intake of 14.8mg. Her main source of iron during the week was beef.

To increase her iron levels, Olivia could include more red meat and wholemeal bread as part of her lunch or dinner, add a fortified breakfast cereal or poached egg to her breakfast, and have some dried fruit, such as apricots or raisins, after meals.

Olivia said: 'I do try to eat healthily but I've never really thought about how much iron I'm getting and how it might affect my energy levels. Every day I try to eat lots of fruit and veg but in the future I will try to include more fish or meat in my diet.

'I didn't realise that dried fruit could help boost my iron levels - they're an easy snack to eat when I'm on the go so I will definitely try to eat more of them.'

Leah Payne

Leah Payne: age 15, student
Average daily iron intake: 21.77mg (the recommendation is 14.8mg a day).

Leah was the only one of our case studies to meet the recommended iron intake.

Her main source of iron during the week was the fortified breakfast cereal she ate every morning. She also got iron from the baked beans she had as part of her dinner a couple of times during the week and from the bread she ate as toast.

But even though her diet includes quite a lot of iron, Leah may not be absorbing it very well, because of the tea she has with her breakfast and also because she eats very little fruit and veg.

Leah should ideally have a glass of orange juice at the same time as her cereal because this could help boost her iron absorption. Cutting down on tea could also help improve Leah's iron levels.

Leah only had five portions of fruit and veg in the week rather than the minimum of five portions of a variety of fruit and veg we should be aiming for every single day. Leah should definitely try to eat more fruit and veg, not just to help her absorb the iron in the food she eats, but also to gain all the other essential nutrients that fruit and veg contain.

Leah said: 'Since doing this food study I have realised how important iron is in your diet. I have now started to eat more fruit and vegetables in my diet and I am hoping this will improve my health, fitness and energy levels.'

These diaries were first published in May 2004.