Prevent Iron Deficiency with Healthy Eating
The World Health Organization states that iron deficiency is the most common anemia (Centers for Disease Control, 2002), and it is estimated to affect approximately 2 billion people worldwide. This is a pretty shocking statistic!
So, why is iron important to the body?
Iron's most important role in the body is as part of the protein hemoglobin. This is the red pigment in our blood responsible for carrying oxygen to the body's tissues. It is also involved in energy metabolism, the immune system, and regulating cell growth.
The body stores iron for use during times when dietary intake is inadequate; therefore, if you don't meet your body's need for dietary iron, iron stores begin to decline, which can eventually lead to iron deficiency.
Some groups in the population may require extra iron to prevent deficiency. These include:
- Pregnant women
- Pre-term and low birth weight infants
- Babies and toddlers
- Teenage girls
- Female athletes
- Women of childbearing age, especially those with heavy menstrual losses
- People with renal failure, especially those undergoing routine dialysis
- People with gastrointestinal disorders
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia:
- Decreased work and school performance
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Decreased immune function, which increases susceptibility to infection
There are two types of iron found in foods: haem iron is found in red meat, organ meats, poultry, fish, and eggs. Non-haem iron is found mainly in plant foods such as wholegrains, pulses, dried fruits, and green leafy vegetables.
Animal sources are more easily absorbed than plant sources; however, the absorption of plant sources can be improved by consuming vitamin C rich foods at the same time.
Foods containing haem and non-haem iron:
Foods containing haem iron (mg)
- 1 slice of fried lamb's liver: 4.4
- 3/4 cup of diced cooked beef: 4.1
- 2 grilled sausages: 3.4
- 1 small grilled beef rib steak: 3.0
- 3½ ounces roast turkey: 2.3
- 2 grilled mid loin lamb chops: 2.0
- 1 grilled pork butterfly steak: 1.2
- 3 ounces dry cooked halibut: 0.9
- 3 ounces tuna, canned: 0.8
- 1/2 roast chicken breast: 0.7
Foods containing non-haem iron (mg)
- 1 cup boiled kidney beans: 5.2
- 1/2 cup of muesli: 3.8
- 1 cup boiled wholemeal pasta: 3.1
- 2 wheat breakfast biscuits: 2.6
- 1/4 cup of cashew nuts: 2.4
- 1/2 cup of baked beans: 2.2
- 1/2 cup boiled spinach: 1.9
- 1 cup of cooked rolled oats: 1.8
- 1/2 cup of lentils/ chick peas: 1.8
- 1 slice of wholemeal bread: 0.7
Warning: Pregnant women should avoid liver due to the very high vitamin A content, which can be harmful to the baby.
6 ways to make sure you're getting enough iron:
1. Make sure you are eating iron-rich foods every day, particularly if you are in one of the high risk groups.
2. Have a source of vitamin C with each meal - this will help increase your iron absorption. Try to include a wide range of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, and have a small glass of orange juice with your main meal.
3. Consume a healthy diet, rich in wholegrains, meat, poultry, fish, fruit and vegetables.
4. Opt for iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads.
5. Vegetarians who exclude all animal products need to include dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas into their diet on a regular basis.
6. Reduce the amount of tea and coffee you drink, particularly at mealtimes - the tannins in tea and coffee bind to iron and reduce absorption.
Diagnosis and treatment for iron deficiency
If you suspect you have an iron deficiency it's a good idea to make an appointment with your general practitioner for a blood test. Your doctor will advise if you need further treatment.
Please do not begin taking iron supplements without first consulting a medical professional - iron is toxic in large amounts, and can be fatal at high doses.
Melanie Thomassian is a professional dietitian, and author of the award winning Dietriffic.com.