If left unchecked, iron deficiency can cause health issues so it’s essential that you know how to identify low iron levels and when to seek medical attention.Kate Save, Clinical Dietitian and CEO and Founder of Be Fit Food
Iron is one of the most abundant minerals on earth. It is found in plants, animals, soil, air, water and rocks. When it comes to our bodies, iron is integral to the proper functioning of all our organ systems and many of our bodies’ biochemical processes.
Yet despite its importance, iron deficiency remains one of the more common dietary deficiencies globally. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that a whopping 25% of the world’s population has anaemia, with 30-50% of these cases caused by iron deficiency.
While it varies from person-to-person, some are at greater risk of experiencing iron deficiency. These include women who experience heavy periods, pregnant women, toddlers, adolescents, and people with certain medical conditions such as coeliac disease.
Diet is also a major cause of iron deficiency. In particular, studies show that vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of experiencing low iron levels due to the absence of meat in their diets. This is because the iron found in meat, fish and poultry (called ‘haem’ iron) is absorbed far more easily than ‘non-haem’ iron which is the iron found in meat-free sources.
Tips for vegetarians and vegans
It’s important that vegetarians and vegans compensate for their meat-free lifestyles by consuming a well-balanced diet that incorporates lots of non-haem iron rich foods such as leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, beans, legumes, nuts, wholemeal breads, and iron fortified foods (e.g. cereals).
To boost the absorption of non-haem iron by up to three times, vegetarians and vegans can combine these plant-based foods with foods containing vitamin C in the same meal. Vitamin C rich foods include citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, cauliflower, leafy green vegetables and capsicum.
In many cases, cooking vegetables is another great way to increase the absorption of non-haem iron. For example, the body absorbs around 6% of the iron from raw broccoli, but this increases to 30% when it is cooked.
People who are at risk of lower iron levels should also avoid drinking teas or coffee with meals as this reduces iron absorption.
If you’re looking for a vegetarian sweet treat, dark chocolate is known to be a good source of iron.
Common symptoms of iron deficiency
If left unchecked, iron deficiency can cause health issues so it’s essential that you know how to identify low iron levels and when to seek medical attention.
Some general symptoms of iron deficiency include constant fatigue and a lack of energy, breathlessness, dizziness or a feeling of weakness. It can also cause brittle fingernails, hair loss, a paler than usual complexion, cracked skin around the mouth, and heart palpitations. Less common symptoms include a sore or swollen tongue, cravings to eat things that have no nutritional benefit (such as ice or dirt), and restless leg syndrome.
Diet alone is sometimes not enough
For some people, increasing the iron that they consume in their diet may not be enough to adequately boost their iron to a healthy level and their doctor or another healthcare professional may recommend that they take an iron supplement.
When choosing a supplement, it is important to check the strength of elemental iron specified on the packaging, as some iron supplements sold in pharmacy are not indicated for the prevention and treatment of iron deficiency. Also look for one that contains Vitamin C as this will help to increase iron absorption. A good example is Ferrogen Iron + Vitamin C as it contains both Ferrous Sulphate, a compound used in the treatment of medically diagnosed iron deficiency, and Vitamin C. While supplements may be necessary for some people, they shouldn’t replace a balanced diet.
If you suspect that you are low in iron, it’s important that you see your doctor and get tested before pursuing treatment options.
Kate Save is a clinical dietitian, exercise psysiologist, diabetes eduator and CEO and co-founder of Be Fit Food – Australia’s first dietician and doctor designed pre-prepared meal program
*ALWAYS READ THE LABEL. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR USE. IF SYMPTOMS PERSIST TALK TO YOUR HEALTH PROFESSIONAL