Everything You Need To Know About Iron Deficiency

According to the Australian Health Survey, two in five women aged 14 – 50 aren’t achieving the recommended amount of iron in their diets. This essential mineral is involved in a huge range of bodily functions, so not getting enough of it can seriously impact your health and wellbeing. We’ve asked accredited dietitian Anthony Glanville to give us the low down on iron deficiency – from symptoms and signs, to treatment options. 

Why are so many Australian women iron deficient?

Our bodies can’t make their own iron, we have to absorb it from the foods that we eat. In Australia we are seeing a huge variety of food and eating trends, some of which can be positive (such as incorporating more greens into our diet) but some, like prolonged ‘detoxes’, overly restrictive eating patterns, or the growing trend for ‘on the go’ foods and eating quickly at our desks, are a cause for concern when looking at iron deficiency.  Being conscious of our diet is absolutely to be encouraged, but we need to make sure that any trends we follow allow us to get the balance of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. Women’s iron requirements can be higher than men’s, particularly if they are undergoing lots of physical activity or are pregnant. The health of a person’s gastrointestinal tract also plays a role, with some women being unable to absorb enough iron even if they eat enough iron rich foods.

What is the most overlooked symptom of iron deficiency in women?

Iron deficiency occurs when your natural iron stores are unusually low, but you still have enough haemoglobin, so you’re not technically anaemic. Iron deficiency can result in fatigue, poor concentration, and can sometimes manifest as poor performance at work or school. Iron is an extremely important building block in the body, and can impact things like the immune system and muscle growth. Low iron can even affect exercise performance.

What’s the biggest mistake people make when it comes to combating iron deficiencies?

Getting adequate iron into your diet can be tricky, and many people make the mistake of thinking it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. But it’s really important to consider your individual circumstances before trying to address the issue. A person’s age, lifestyle and even their exercise habits can greatly impact their iron requirements; for example, women of reproductive age, those who are pregnant, and people who are into endurance exercise, all have a higher than average need for iron. Many people think it is just about eating more red meat, but in reality it is about increasing iron rich foods, checking what you eat with them, how you eat it, the health of your gut, and other lifestyle factors.

What steps can women take to boost their iron intake?

While eating more meat is the most obvious way to get more iron into your diet, clearly that is not going to work for everyone. Some other ways to boost your iron include:

– Making sure you consume plenty of green leafy vegetables, lentils and pulses in your diet
– Checking your Vitamin C intake – it helps your body absorb iron, so include things like orange juice, capsicum, berries, kiwi fruit, tomato or broccoli with your meal to help make the most of your iron
– Watch your food combos – calcium and oxalic acid both inhibit your absorption of iron, so avoid eating spinach, rhubarb, sweet potato, dairy and soy-based foods in the same meal as your high-iron foods
– Limiting coffee and tea to between meals – caffeine also inhibits iron absorption, so drink coffee and tea between meals instead of with them
– Snacking on iron-rich foods like dried fruit and nuts

What are the best non-meat sources of iron?

Meat is, without a doubt, the best dietary source of iron as it ‘haem iron’, which is more easily absorbed by the body. However, for vegetarians and vegans, or others wanting to limit meat in their diet, there are plenty of plant-based foods that are rich in iron, it’s just that this iron – known as ‘non-haem iron’ – is not as easily absorbed. To ensure you’re getting adequate iron on a meat-free or low-meat diet, concentrate on increasing your green leafy veggies, legumes like lentils and beans, whole grains like quinoa, brown rice and cereals that have been fortified with iron, and nuts and seeds. And if you combine these foods with fruit and veg that’s high in Vitamin C, you’ll absorb the available iron even more efficiently.

Of course, just like other key minerals, if you’re finding it hard to pack enough iron into your diet, or for people who are time-poor, it is also available in supplement form. While iron supplements have had a reputation in the past for having a strong metallic taste and causing side effects like constipation and stomach upsets, there are now supplements available that taste great and have been formulated to be gentle on the stomach, such as Ferro-Sachets. If you’ve been put off in the past it’s worth investigating what’s available now.

Should you consult your doctor before taking an iron supplement?

You should most definitely see your doctor if you’re worried that you may be low in iron. They’ll do a blood test to look at your iron stores, and discuss options to increase your levels, including making changes to your diet, or introducing an appropriate iron supplement. It’s really important to get your doctor’s advice on the type of supplement that will work best for you, and how much to take, as too much iron in your diet can be harmful.

Anthony Glanville is a Sydney-based dietitian accredited by the DAA. Anthony has expertise in assisting his clients in all aspects of dietetics including weight management, sports nutrition, gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular conditions and diabetes.

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