Are you at risk of the most common nutritional disorder in the world?

IRON deficiency (a condition where your body doesn’t have enough of the mineral iron) is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.

1 in 3 Australian women don’t get enough iron through their diet.

As a woman who chooses not to eat meat, I am particularly conscious about getting enough. Iron is SUCH a vital mineral for our bodies, and I don’t think that its importance is discussed enough in general media. So, I’m hoping this post will spread some awareness about it!

Let’s kick off. What does iron do in our bodies?

Iron is an essential mineral. Essential meaning that our bodies are unable to manufacture it, so we must supply it through the food we eat. Iron molecules are a vital component of red blood cells, which supply oxygen to muscles and tissues. Iron is also required for a healthy immune system and plays a key role in multiple metabolic pathways including respiration, energy production, DNA synthesis and cell proliferation.

Iron deficiency can be caused by a number of physiological issues within the body that are not only diet related. For example, I have a friend who eats red meat most nights, but still has low iron levels because her body has difficulty absorbing the iron from her food.
For simplicity in this post, I am only going to discuss the risk of inadequate dietary intake of iron.

Are you at risk of not getting enough iron?

At-risk groups include:
– Young women.
– Vegetarians and vegans (read on to find out how you can get enough plant-based iron through your diet).
– Children during rapid growth.
– Women during menstration.

What are some signs of iron deficiency?

– Feeling tired constantly (with enough rest).
– Having poor concentration and difficulty focusing on tasks.
– Getting sick often (due to an impaired immune system).
– Pale skin.
– Fatigue.
– Irritability.
– Weakness.
– Shortness of breath.

Now that you know what iron does in our bodies, a lot of these signs and symptoms make sense, right? Without enough iron, we have less red blood cells and less oxygen being carried around (which is where the fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin and feeling tired constantly stem from).

Chronic iron deficiency can lead to anaemia. Anaemia can cause delayed motor and mental functioning in infants, fatigue, lightheadedness/headaches, grumpiness, inability to concentrate, and impaired mental clarity.

How can I ensure I eat enough iron in my diet? 

Firstly it’s important to know that not all iron in food is created equal. I often hear vegetarians or vegans saying that:

“A piece of steak has the same amount of iron in it as a head of broccoli”.
Or
“A teaspoon of spirulina powder has more iron in it than eating a breast of chicken”.

Beware of believing these comments – they are not true. Nutrition (like so many things) is not as simple as this. This is because there are two types of iron in food:

  • Haem iron (from animal foods) has a 15-18% absorption level.AND
  • Non-haem iron (from plant foods) has a <5% absorption level. So if you do not eat animal food, it is important that you eat a lot more non-haeme plant foods.

So what foods contain iron?

If your a vegetarian/vegan – here are some good non-heme iron sources:

Food type & amount Iron (mg)
Chickpeas (1/2 cup) 6.2
Tofu (2 large squares = 100 g) 5.2
Blackstrap molasses (1 Tbsp) 3.6
Cooked wholemeal pasta (1 cup) 2.3
Kidney Beans (1/2 cup) 2.1
Nuts (cashews/almonds/hazelnuts/macadamia/
pistachio nuts without shells) (1/4 cup)
1.3-2.2
Raw spinach (1 cup) 1.2
Egg (1 egg= 55 g) 1.1
Rolled oats (1/2 cup) 1.1
Broccoli (1 cup) 0.86

If you consume animal products, but are concerned you are not getting enough iron, these are some good heme iron sources:

Food type & amount Iron (mg)
Kangaroo (100 g) 4.4
Sardines (120 g or one reg tin) 3.24
Lean beef (100 g) 3.1
Lean Lamb (100 g) 2.5
Lean Pork (100 g) 1.4
Tuna (100 g or one small can) 1.0
Chicken (100 g) 0.9
Snapper (100 g) 0.3

 How much iron do I need to consume each day? 

Females aged 19-50 years – 18 mg
Pregnant females – 27 mg
Males aged 19-50 years – 8 mg
Everyone older than 51 years = 8mg

I’m a vegetarian, how can I maximise the amount of non-haeme iron I get from plant foods? 

1. Eat foods that contain vitamin C at the same time (or just before/after).

To increase how much iron the body absorbs from plant foods, eat foods high in vitamin C (e.g. lemon, oranges, kiwifruit, berries, tomatoes, capsicum, sweet potato, pumpkin and broccoli). So, if your having a plate of vegetable curry with chickpeas and tofu, make sure there is some pumpkin or tomatoes in there too! Or squeeze some lemon over your green salad.

2. Avoid iron blockers at or around the time your consuming iron foods.
Iron blockers include tea, coffee, calcium and some herbal medications. These can block plant iron being absorbed by the body. So avoid drinking tea or coffee with (or just before/after) meals or taking calcium supplements at the same time as eating iron-rich foods!

I think I might be iron deficient – what should I do? 

If you are worried that you might be iron deficient – it’s important to see your doctor to get a blood test and confirm. Iron supplements should only be taken when a blood test confirms that your levels are low. Don’t just start popping iron tablets if you feel a bit tired or lethargic, because if you are not low, you could overload your body with iron (which is very toxic!).

If you have any specific questions or concerns about your iron intake, please comment on on this post or you can shoot me an email at sprout.dietetics@gmail.com! x

Images sourced via pinterest. Authors unknown. 

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