Provided courtesy of Feel Fresh Nutrition
Are you feeling tired? Difficulty concentrating? Irritable? Dizziness? Feeling cold?
These are just a few of many common symptoms that are associated with iron deficiency (1). Understanding what iron does in our bodies, what deficiency can look like and how to prevent it can help you stay healthy.
What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that has plays vital role in supporting health and wellbeing. Its main functions are:
- To transport oxygen around the body. Every cell in the body needs oxygen. Iron in the haemoglobin of red blood cells helps with this by allowing oxygen to be carried from the lungs to the rest of the body.
- Enables a healthy, functioning immune system. Adequate iron stores are dependent on a well functioning immune system. If iron stores are low, your body may be more prone to infections as the cells who are responsible for fighting infections rely on adequate iron stores.
- Providing adequate energy. Iron is needed for the chemical reactions that occur in your body to turn food into energy (2).
What is iron deficiency?
When insufficient iron is received by the body, iron deficiency can result. Without enough iron, the body cannot produce enough haemoglobin to carry oxygen around the body, nor cannot it produce enough of the cells that are responsible for fighting off colds and infections. Low iron also affects the amount of energy being produced from food. As a result, iron deficiency can leave you feeling short of breath, more prone to infections and constantly tired or fatigued.
Unfortunately, iron deficiency is one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in the world, affecting 30% of the world's population (3).
- 8 out of 10 toddlers don't meet the recommended daily intake for iron (4)
- At seven months, a baby needs more iron than their dad (2)
- 14% of children under the age of two are iron deficient (5)
- Over 1/3 of teenage girls don't achieve their daily iron requirements (6)
- 1 in 14 New Zealand women are low in iron (6)
So where can I get my iron from?
There are two forms of iron found in foods – haem (usually from animal foods) and non-haem (usually from plants, but also found in animal foods) iron sources. The body absorbs haem iron easier than non-haem.
Haem iron food sources
Beef, lamb, pork, venison, liver, kidney, poultry, oysters and mussels.
Non-haem iron food sources
Bread, fortified breakfast cereals, beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, fruit and vegetables.
Top tips to improve iron intake
- Eat your veggies. Eating meat with plant foods (vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, fruit) can help the body absorb more non-haem iron by up to four times! (2)
- Get your Vit C. Vitamin C can help the absorption of haem and non haem iron from a meal into your body. Vitamin C rich fruit and vegetables such as capsicum, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato and citrus can be paired with your haem and non-haem iron foods to increase absorption.
- Not all iron is created equal. As mentioned, iron is available in two forms in food – haem and non-haem. Haem iron sources in animal foods are better absorbed by the body (15-35% absorbed) than non-haem sources (2-20%). When choosing non-haem iron sources choose good quality sources such as dark green leafy vegetables (spinach and broccoli), legumes (lentils and soybeans), grains (quinoa and brown rice), nuts and seeds.
- Keep meals tannin free. Tannins in tea (and to a lesser extent coffee) can reduce the amount of iron we can absorb from food. Try to drink tea and coffee between instead of with meals.
- Don't just pop pills. Iron supplements should only be taken under medical supervision. In the long term, food sources of iron are the safest and healthiest way to maintain iron levels. Frequent use of iron supplements can interfere with the absorption of zinc, copper and calcium.
- Be extra iron smart if you're at risk. Infants, women during their reproductive years, teenagers, pregnant and breast feeding mothers, athletes and very active people, vegetarians/vegans and the elderly are all at high risk of being iron deficient (7). If you're in one of these groups and are feeling some of the symptoms of iron deficiency, it might be a good idea to have your levels tested.
If you have ongoing concerns about your health contact your GP or for tailored nutrition advice book a chat with one of the team at Feel Fresh Nutrition. Click Here to visit the Feel Fresh Nutrition website!
(1) Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, (MFMER). Iron Deficiency Anaemia. (1998-2020). Retrieved from Mayo Clinic.
(2) National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). (2006). Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand including Recommended Dietary Intakes. Canberra: NHMRC, Wellington: Ministry of Health.
(3) World Health Organisation. (2020). Micronutrient Deficiencies . World Health Organisation. Geneva: Switzerland. Retrieved from WHO.
(3) Wall, CR et al. (2008). Ethnic variance in iron status: is it related to dietary intake? Public Health Nutr 12 (9):1413-1421.
(4) Grant, CC et al. (2007). Population prevalence and risk factors for iron deficiency in Auckland, New Zealand. J Paediatr Child Health 43: 532-538.
(5) University of Otago and Ministry of Health. (2011). A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
(6) World Iron Awareness Week. (2020). Retrieved from Iron Week.