Iron

Iron is an essential mineral required by the body for a number of different functions. It’s most well known role is it’s attachment to the red blood cell protein, haemoglobin. The iron in haemoglobin binds to oxygen and delivers it to all the cells of the body. Metabolic respiration, the process where cells create energy from breaking down nutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins), cannot Read more of this post

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3 Steps to Decrease Your Risk of Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency is actually the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. People who are most likely to experience problems with iron deficiency are young children and women who are menstruating or pregnant.

Having a regular monthly period more than doubles the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) of iron for women, who need 18mg per day, compared to men who only need 8mg per day.   Pregnancy increases this requirement by an additional 27mg per day and breastfeeding by an additional 9 mg per day.

One of the challenges with iron intake is its poor ability for absorption by the body. It has, what we call, low bio-availability or low absorption rate.

Iron comes in two different types. Heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron, comes from animals when you eat meat, chicken or fish. This iron is more easily absorbed than the other type but even then only about 15-30% of the iron eaten is actually absorbed by the gut. Non-heme iron comes from plant sources including fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts, and is difficult to absorb. Only about 2-20% of the non-heme iron eaten is actually absorbed by the body.

Here are 3 steps you can take to increases your intake and absorption of iron and decrease your risk of deficiency.

Step 1: Increase your intake of high iron foods
Heme-iron foods are your best bet. Try to have at least one serve of red meat, liver, chicken or fish everyday. Non-heme iron foods can also be helpful, especially legumes, nuts and seeds. Other sources of iron are fortified foods. Breakfast cereals, drink bases (Milo, Ovaltine) and other manufactured foods may have had supplemental iron added and can be a valuable part of your diet.

Step 2: Increase your intake of food that enhances iron absorption
Non-heme iron absorption is enhanced when you eat it with red meat (called the “meat factor”) and vitamin C at the same time. Foods high in vitamin C are fruit and vegetables, especially oranges, lemons, tomatoes, capsicum and strawberries.

An example of a high iron meal would be: a nice piece of beef steak with homemade tomato salsa, a chickpea and lentil salad drizzled with lemon juice and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Step 3: Be mindful of foods that decrease iron absorption
Foods that contain phytates and phenols decrease the absorption of non-heme iron. These are foods generally high in fibre like wholegrains and cereals. It’s important to eat fibre so please don’t cut it from your diet, just eat it at other times through out the day, or make sure that you are eating plenty of foods containing heme iron and you’ll be fine. Tea and coffee also contain substances that decrease iron absorption, so drink them in between meals times or swap them for fruit juice or water.

An interesting study that compared a meat-based diet and a vegetable based diet, found that women with low iron to begin with had stable iron status on the meat-based diet and poor iron status when consuming the vegetable based diet, even though their iron intake was the same. This research shows how important it is that the right kind of iron is eaten to maximise its absorption by the body.

If you are a young women who:

  • experiences regular monthly periods or excessively heavy periods,
  • are thinking of getting pregnant or already are pregnant, and
  • has already been diagnosed with low iron stores or iron deficiency aenemia,

I would recommend having your iron levels checked and at least doing the above 3 steps to ensure that you are eating enough iron to stave off deficiency.

This post is dedicated to a great friend of mine, enduring the long journey of pregnancy with beauty and grace. xxx

References:
European Journal of Nutrition 2007, Vol 46, pg: 439-444.
Nutrition and Dietetics 2007, Vol 64 (S), Pg: 126-130.