10 things you need to know about iron

Iron – we know we need it, but perhaps we don’t know exactly why, what exactly iron is, how to get the amount we need, or even what that amount is.

Dr Cathy Stephenson shares all the key facts.

1. Iron deficiency is the most common dietary deficiency in the world. It is thought that up to 20 per cent of New Zealand women, and 3 per cent of men, may be lacking in this essential nutrient.

2. The rate of iron deficiency in children is not clear, but is likely to be high. Studies have reported rates as high as 8-14 per cent in New Zealand babies aged 6-24 months. Teenage years (around 11-14) are a risky time as well, because of rapid growth, and the onset of menstruation. In this group, the highest prevalence is in Maori and Pacific Island girls.

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3. Iron is incredibly important for our bodies and minds. It enables blood cells to carry oxygen to our muscles and brains. It keeps us mentally fit, strong and able to fight infections. A lack of iron will cause anaemia, tiredness, lethargy, pallor, increased susceptibility to infections such as coughs, colds or thrush, irritability or grumpiness, and poor concentration. In children especially, being iron deficient can contribute to difficulties in learning and retaining information.

4. Average daily requirements of iron vary throughout life depending on the stage you are in. For example, we know that babies and teenagers have much greater iron needs to cope with the rate of growth of their bodies. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding need extra iron to cope with the baby’s demands; the same is true for women who are menstruating – they need extra iron to replace the iron lost each month with their period. Athletes may also need to be aware of their iron intake, as regular intense exercise will increase the body’s requirements.

5. In terms of recommended daily amounts, the guidelines are:

* Menstruating women – 18 milligrams per day (more if their periods are heavy)
* Pregnant women – 27mg per day
* Breast-feeding women – 10mg per day
* Other adults (male and female) – 8mg per day
* Children – depending on age, 7-10mg per day
* Babies – newborn babies have enough iron stores to last for the first 6 months of life; formula is fortified with iron, but breast milk isn’t so it is crucial that beyond 6 months of age, babies who are exclusively breast fed are also given iron-rich solids (such as fortified cereal).

6. Certain medical conditions can lead to iron deficiency, including Coeliac disease, kidney failure, heavy periods (known as menorrhagia), bleeding into the gut (example: from bowel cancer or ulcers) and chronic malabsorption. If you are a frequent blood donor, especially if you are female, you are at risk of becoming iron deficient – this is something the New Zealand Blood Service will screen you for.

7. Being vegetarian, especially if you are vegan, carries a higher risk of iron deficiency, if you have other risk factors such as heavy periods or pregnancy. Vegetarians need to eat about 80 per cent more iron in their diet than meat eaters do, as it is harder to absorb the iron found in vegetarian foods.

8. Iron in food comes in two forms – “haem” iron and “non-haem” iron. The body absorbs haem iron, much more readily than it can absorb non-haem iron. Foods containing high levels of haem iron include kidneys, liver, lamb, beef, canned sardines and tuna, chicken, pork and some fish. Foods containing non-haem iron include lentils, split peas, silverbeet, broccoli, spinach, kale, puha, eggs, wholemeal bread, raisins, dried apricots, porridge and other breakfast cereals with added iron, baked beans, tofu and nuts.

9. If you drink a lot of tea, coffee, coke or red wine with your food, it will inhibit the body’s ability to absorb iron. Adding something containing vitamin C will do the reverse – so either drinking real fruit juice or eating vitamin C-laden fruit (kiwi, blueberries, citrus fruit) with your meal is a great idea.

10. Iron deficiency can be diagnosed by a simple blood test which checks the level of iron stores (ferritin) in your body. If you are deficient, and there is no serious underlying cause, simple iron supplements available on prescription will correct the deficiency and make you function noticeably better!


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