Iron is found in every single cell of our bodies and it’s a mineral we can’t live without. Yet most of us aren’t getting enough. Here’s how to up your intake (without living on steak)!
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, in both developed and developing countries. In 2008, it was discovered that 36 per cent of Australian females aged 28–35 suffered some degree of iron deficiency, while additional research shows that one in three toddlers have low iron levels. Iron deficiency is a precursor to anaemia and occurs when the iron stores in our body become low. Once our iron stores are depleted, anaemia occurs. This affects the production of red blood cells, so they have difficulty transporting enough oxygen to the cells in our body. Symptoms of iron deficiency can include fatigue, poor concentration and poor condition of your hair, skin and nails. Symptoms of anaemia progress to pale skin, weakness, breathlessness, depression, liver disease and osteoporosis. In other words: iron is important!
The role of iron
Iron has many roles, but its most well-known role is as part of the protein haemoglobin, which is a component of blood that helps carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of the body. The oxygen is then used to burn carbohydrates and fats, releasing the energy stored inside those cells, which is why we can feel tired when we don’t get enough iron. Iron also helps our muscles store and use oxygen, and is important for brain function and a strong immune system.
What happens if I don’t get enough?
In pregnant women: Iron deficiency increases the risk of preterm delivery, low birth weight, and perinatal mortality.
In infants, toddlers and school-aged children: Iron deficiency adversely affects behaviour, cognitive performance and physical growth. Infants who develop anaemia before the age of one show delays in psychomotor development and, by the time they reach school age, can have impaired language and coordination skills which are equivalent to a 5–10 point IQ deficit.
In teens and adults: Iron deficiency can affect memory and reduce work performance. It can also adversely affect the muscles’ ability to use energy, thereby reducing physical capacity. It can also affect the immune system and lead to increased risk of death from infection, in all ages.
What causes iron deficiency?
Inadequate iron intake: Poor food choices and unbalanced, restrictive or vegetarian diets; the fact that we don’t absorb all the iron we eat (also known as the ‘low bioavailability’ of iron); and eating foods containing substances that inhibit iron absorption – such as calcium, zinc and phytates (found in wholegrains and legumes), polyphenols (in coffee, tea and red wine) and vegetable protein.
Inadequate iron absorption by the gut: How much iron we absorb is regulated according to what the body needs, but undiagnosed coeliac disease, gastric surgery and low bioavailability of iron can lead to inadequate iron absorption.
Excess iron losses: Any blood loss also means a loss of iron. In Australia, the most common cause of excess blood loss for women is through heavy menstrual periods. Other causes of chronic blood loss include colonic polyps, bowel cancer, upper gastrointestinal erosions (related to medication use), regular blood donation and inflammatory bowel disease.
Increased iron needs: Iron requirements are higher during periods of rapid growth, especially in infants, toddlers and teens. Pregnant women also have higher iron requirements.
Chronic inflammatory disease: New research suggests that inflammatory disorders in which the immune system is abnormally activated, may produce a type of anaemia called ‘anaemia of inflammation and chronic disease’.
Athleticism: Iron is also lost when we exercise, so athletes (female athletes and vegetarian athletes, in particular) have a higher risk
How can I get more iron (without following a carnivorous diet)?
There are two types of iron: haem (animal products) and non-haem (plant foods). Haem iron is more readily absorbed in the body than non-haem iron, which is why meat is such an important source of iron. If you are vegetarian, you can increase your absorption of non-haem iron by eating vitamin-C-rich foods and organic acids, such as citric and lactic acid.
Should I take a supplement?
People who tend to need a supplement include pregnant women, teenage girls, vegetarians, athletes, young children and those with kidney or gastrointestinal diseases who are unable to absorb iron properly. Iron supplements can cause constipation, nausea, vomiting and dark stools. When choosing an iron supplement, you may need to try a couple to see which ones cause the least amount of side effects. They should not be taken with calcium supplements or anatacids, as they can decrease iron absorption. Since too much iron can be toxic, it is best to talk to your health care professional to see whether you need an iron supplement.