Could you have an iron deficiency?

Updated: Mar 30

Iron - A critical mineral for the healthy functioning of the body, but alarmingly the leading nutrient deficiency for children, and menstruating or pregnant women.

About one third of the worlds population is iron deficient, and around 5% of the Australian population – that may not sound like many, but if we break that down to specific populations - over 34% of women of childbearing age are iron deficient, and it ranges from 10-30% for infants, toddlers and children, for our male population deficiency occurs in less than 2%. So we can see for women and children, this is quite a serious issue when it comes to adequate nutrition for our families.

What does iron do for us, and why is it so critical that we reach our iron needs? Iron is a mineral, it is critical for healthy daily functioning of the body, and also for growth and development. It’s major role in the body is that it is used to create haemoglobin in red blood cells, which then transports oxygen from the lungs and throughout the entire body. If we have a deficiency in iron, then we do not create enough haemoglobin – and our health suffers.

Iron deficiency can initially be hard to spot, as the symptoms are often mild to begin with and can easily go unnoticed. But as the deficiency worsens, symptoms amplify. Here are the top symptoms of iron deficiency for people of any age:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fatigue

  • Pale skin

  • Dark circles

  • Dizziness, light headedness and fainting

  • Fast heart rate or palpitations

  • Poor immunity / either recurrent illness or slow to recover

  • Brittle nails, thinning hair

  • Swelling, redness and soreness of the tongue

  • Low appetite in children can be a sign of iron deficiency

  • Failure to thrive

If any or many of these symptoms are present, a simple blood test at the doctor can confirm whether there is an iron deficiency.

Avoiding a deficiency with regular consumption of iron rich foods is our most powerful course of action. Iron comes from both animal sources, and plant foods. It is important to note that absorption from plant sources is very low – as little as 10% of the total iron is absorbed, therefore this puts those following a vegetarian or vegan diet at an even higher risk of deficiency.

The amount of iron we need differs between different ages and genders:

  • Boys under 18 – 11mg daily

  • Girls under 18 – 15mg daily

  • Males over 18 - 8mg daily

  • Women between 18 – 50 – 18mg daily

  • Pregnant women – 27mg daily

  • Infants require 11mg daily (supplied through breast milk and formula)

  • Toddlers require 7mg daily

  • And children require 10mg daily

Regular consumption of the following foods will help keep iron levels tip top –

  • Red meat (beef, lamb, kangaroo), aim for 2 serves weekly as a family.

  • Organ meats, now I know these aren’t an immediate first choice on peoples menu’s but they are the richest source of highly absorbable iron, and can be snuck into typical meals without detection. I cook chicken livers into minced meat mixture and then puree it as the base for meals such as spaghetti Bolognese.

  • Chicken, eggs and fish

  • Lentils and beans

  • Tofu

  • Leafy green vegetables

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Sun-dried tomato

With absorption of plant based iron being so low, it is helpful to get plant sources into the diet on a daily basis, small amounts often really do help.

We can also enhance the amount of iron we absorb from either source by maximising our Vitamin C rich foods – citrus fruit, capsicum, kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries and papaya. And minimising our intake of foods and beverages which interfere with absorption, especially when having an iron rich meal – tea and coffee, dairy and grains.

What about supplementation? It is really important that iron is only taken via supplement if a deficiency is present. Taking in an excess of iron, especially in the form of a supplement, can in fact be toxic for the body, and result in the same set of symptoms listed above. The only exception to this is pregnancy, most pregnancy multivitamins will routinely have a small amount of added iron in them due to the high demand for iron at this time. Your Nutritionist, Doctor or accredited health practitioner can help you choose the best iron supplement for your needs.

So avoid shrugging off ongoing fatigue and dark circles, and pay attention to minor symptoms that your children are exhibiting. It may be a simple solution such as getting iron levels rectified and everybody’s health can thrive once more! Ensure to schedule in iron rich foods and meals into the weekly menu plan, remembering preventing a deficiency is much more powerful than healing one.

April is a Holistic Nutritionist, a Functional Health Practitioner and a Mum of two.

She uses Nutrition as the central focus to restore health and wellbeing in her patients. April strongly believes that the mind, body, soul and our environment are strongly interconnected when it comes to our health either struggling, or thriving and believes that finding a balance between them all is our ticket to optimum health. April has a special interest in Gut health, immune disorders and restoring health for the post natal mother, and has a passion and flair for creating wholesome delicious meals

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