There are several reasons why you might become deficient in iron. One is having a disorder which affects iron absorption such as coeliac disease, but the reason behind low iron levels is usually as simple as a lack or iron in the diet. Luckily, most iron deficiencies can be addressed through simple dietary adjustments.
Why do we need iron?
Iron is an essential mineral. It is a key component in haemoglobin, which lives in your red blood cells and transports oxygen to every cell in the body. Without sufficient iron, the body cannot produce enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to our organs and cells. Optimal oxygen delivery is need for all normal bodily processes including optimal brain function, energy and immunity.
Signs of iron deficiency
Having low iron levels in your blood is the major cause of iron deficiency anaemia. This is a condition that can cause symptoms such as weakness, exhaustion, shortness of breath, pale skin, fast heartbeat and dry, brittle nails. Women are most prone to lower levels of iron because they lose blood through menstruation as well as during pregnancies. This means they have higher iron requirements relative to their size.
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What is the nutrient reference value for women?
According to the NHS, women aged 19- 50 years should be getting around 14.8mg iron each day. Women over 50 years need 8.7mg because after the menopause iron requirements drop. To give you an idea of the iron levels in some common foods, a 100g can of tuna contains 1.5mg, a 60g egg contains 1.1mg, 100g baked beans in tomato sauce contains 3mg, 100g of kale has 2mg, and 50g dried fruits contains 1mg.
Women who suffer from heavy periods or who are pregnant may need to take an iron supplement to ensure they are maintaining adequate iron levels.
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How can I include more iron in my diet?
Foods that are rich in iron include:
- offal (like liver and kidney (although avoid liver if you are pregnant because it contains high levels of vitamin A, and too much vitamin A could harm your baby)
- red meat
- fortified cereals
- dried fruit
- pulses such as chickpeas
- nuts and seeds
- dark green leafy vegetables (such as kale)
- wholemeal bread.
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Vegetarians take note
The absorption of vegetarian sources of iron are easily affected by the foods they are eaten with, so vegetarians and vegans need to take extra care to ensure their iron levels are topped up.
Vitamin C, when consumed alongside plant sources of iron, assists with absorption, so it is a good idea to add a source of vitamin C to each meal that contains iron. You could sip orange juice after each meal to help absorption, include vitamin C rich vegetables such as tomato or peppers, or enjoy delicious fruits such as mango, pineapple or berries as a dessert.
Tea and coffee lovers take note
If you usually drink a cup of tea or coffee with your meals, you may wish to re-think this choice of beverage. This is because tea and coffee contain compounds called polyphenols which can inhibit the absorption of iron so try to avoid drinking them within 30 minutes of your meals. Instead, a glass of vitamin C-rich orange juice or a glass of water is an excellent choice to help iron absorption, and leave your tea and coffee breaks for between meals.
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Talk to your GP if you think you may be suffering from low iron levels, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.