Iron is one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in the world and makes up 50% of all anaemias. With the food we eat there are macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are what we require in large amounts each day as they provide us with energy. Macronutrients include fat, protein, and carbohydrate (also alcohol as it technically provides a lot of energy but no nutritional value). Micronutrients are our vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are organic compounds and include the B vitamins, A, D, E, K, and C to name a few. Minerals can be divided into macrominerals and microminerals. Macrominerals are the minerals we require in larger quantities, for example calcium and magnesium, whilst microminerals are those we only require in trace amounts. However, those trace amounts are often essential to our health. Iron is a micromineral, as are other minerals such as copper and zinc. Over 60% of the iron found in our body is within our red blood cells. It is part of the haemoglobin structure which helps to transport oxygen around the body. Iron is also found in a compound called myoglobin which is found in our muscles and stores oxygen. Iron plays a fundamental part in our immune function and also in metabolic reactions throughout the body which are important for the production of energy. The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency basically reflect its roles in energy production and oxygen distribution. Common signs and symptoms include, but are not limited to:
o Fatigue o Reduced concentration o Shortness of breath o Mood changes o Mouth ulcers o Reduced immunity o Paleness o Brittle nails o Sensitivity to the cold o Pica – more often seen in end stage iron deficiency anaemia. This is craving non-food items such as ice and soil.
What are the best sources of iron? Iron as a whole is not absorbed that effectively by our body, however, the biggest influence on how much we absorb is actually our current body iron status. That is, if an individual is low in iron their body will respond and absorb more iron from the food consumed. Someone who has higher levels of iron will absorb less. Another important consideration with iron in foods is the form it is in. There are two forms of iron, haem and non-haem. Haem sources of iron are those that come from animal products and is better absorbed and less affected by dietary factors. Some good sources of haem iron include: · 100g pork liver 21mg · ½ cup cooked mussels 4.4mg · 130g beef steak 3mg · 100g Hoki fish 2.9mg · 100g chicken breast 1.9mg
Dietary factors that can reduce the absorption of iron include:
· Polyphenols: tea, coffee, red wine, herbal tea · Phytates: legumes. Cereals, nuts · Oxalic acid: spinach, rhubarb, silver beet · Calcium: dairy foods, supplements
There is also a dietary compound that helps us absorb iron - Vitamin C. This is often why you may see iron supplements with vitamin C added. When eating meals that contain iron, pair them with fruit and vegetables (as you should be doing anyway!) as this will help the absorption of iron. Examples of good Vitamin C sources include:
· Orange 52mg/100g · Broccoli 99mg/100g · Kiwifruit 122mg/100g · Orange capsicum 137mg/100g
Iron requirements: Younger children, boys, men and older adults: 8 – 10 mg/day. Girls aged 14 to 18 years: 15mg/day. Menstruating women: 18mg per/day. Pregnant women: 27mg/day. Pregnant women need more to support the increased blood volume and iron needs of the developing foetus, while lactating women aged 19 – 30 years require 9mg/day.
Who is at risk of iron deficiency?
· People on energy restricted diets · People with eating disorders · People with gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. IBD, coeliac) · People with alcohol dependence · Teenage girls · Pregnant or breastfeeding women · People taking specific types of medication (antacids, proton pump inhibitors) · Adolescent athletes · Vegetarians or vegans · Endurance athletes, especially runners · Those who donate blood regularly · Athletes who are altitude training · Mensurating women
My top three Iron tips
1. Do not start taking iron supplements without knowing what’s going on. Although iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, so can other nutrient deficiencies and health conditions. Go and see your relevant health professional, that is your GP or a dietitian if you have concerns. Iron deficiency may be due to inadequate intake but can also be a marker for other conditions, e.g. undiagnosed coeliac, RED-S, and eating disorders.
2. If you are trying to increase your iron levels, drink coffee and tea between main meals.
3. Eat your vegetables, they not only enhance your health but will enhance your iron absorption too!