Did you know iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in the UK? The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey revealed nearly 25 per cent of women are at risk of low iron levels.
We need iron to make haemoglobin, a blood protein that helps transport oxygen around our bodies. An iron deficiency can trigger anaemia, leaving us feeling weak, tired and short of breath.
Our bodies also need iron to produce cytokines, compounds that help regulate our immune system. So being iron deficient could make you more likely to fall ill.
But what could be causing your low iron levels? From over-exercising to a gut condition, we’ve found five unusual reasons you’re not getting enough iron.
Vitamin C and cups of tea
Iron from animal sources, such as red meat or offal, is the most easily absorbed by the body. But if you’re veggie or vegan, meat is strictly off the menu.
Even if you’re eating plenty of iron-rich plant sources – including lentils and green leafy veg like watercress – you may not be absorbing it properly. Luckily, vitamin C boosts iron absorption from plant sources, so make sure you always have a glass of orange juice with your vegetarian meals.
It may also help to avoid drinking tea too close to meal times. Tea contains compounds called polyphenols that inhibit the absorption of iron, so leave it for at least an hour before putting the kettle on.
Starting a new diet
Well done if you’ve started a healthy eating regime, just make sure you’re not cutting out essential nutrients as well as cutting down calories. It’s tempting to restrict your food intake, but you may not be eating enough to hit your daily iron targets.
Protein is a great source of iron and helps you feel fuller for longer, but cutting down on protein can lead to low iron levels, lethargy and trigger cravings for quick-release carbs like biscuits to give you an energy boost. Adding more protein to your diet, such as lean meat, eggs or wholegrains, can keep iron and energy levels stable, and help you lose weight too.
Hitting the gym too hard
If you’ve recently upped your exercise routine, one surprising side effect could be low iron levels. Many women can suffer from ‘sports anaemia’; the pounding action of our feet on a pavement or gym floor may destroy red blood cells, so there’s less iron available in our blood. We also lose iron when we sweat, so a tough dance class could do some real damage to our iron levels.
Make sure you’re eating enough iron-rich foods, and try taking an iron supplement if you’re training for an event. If you’re really suffering, ask your GP for a blood test to check for anaemia.
Experiencing coeliac disease
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease, where your immune system mistakenly believes gluten is a threat, triggering irritation and damage to the lining of your gut. This damage means you may not absorb nutrients properly, including iron.
If you also experience symptoms such as bloating, pain and diarrhoea, see your GP for a blood test. You’ll need to cut all gluten out of your diet to beat coeliac disease, but there are plenty of gluten-free foods now available.
Being a woman!
Women simply need more iron than men – 14.8mg per day compared with 8.7mg – as we lose it in our periods every month. If you suffer from particularly heavy periods, this could make low iron levels even worse.
Being pregnant or breastfeeding also lowers our iron levels, as we need it to help produce the baby’s red blood cells or breast milk. Talk to your doctor if you think you could benefit from taking a supplement.