When it comes to women’s health, most people are aware of the importance of calcium for maintaining strong bones, but did you know that iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world? According to the World Health Organization approximately 30% of the world’s population have anemia, many due to iron-deficiency. That’s nearly 1 out of every 3 people on the planet!
Iron is an important nutrient for many functions within the body. Perhaps the most important function is in red blood cells, where it acts to transport oxygen throughout the body. If you don’t have enough iron in your diet, your body won’t make enough red blood cells and you can develop anemia. Iron also plays an important role in brain development, energy metabolism, immune function and DNA synthesis.
Women are at particularly high risk for developing iron deficiency anemia due to blood loss from their monthly periods. It’s true that iron deficiency is more prevalent in households with lower incomes, but because a woman’s requirements are more than double that of men it’s still something that all females need to guard against.
Symptoms of iron deficiency
Mild iron deficiency may not present itself with any obvious symptoms at first but if left unchecked for long enough iron deficiency anemia can develop. The most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia are fatigue and weakness. Other symptoms can include dizziness, headaches, pale skin, shortness of breath and chest pain. The only way to properly diagnose iron deficiency is through a blood test, so it’s important to see your doctor on an annual basis for blood work.
Who’s at risk?
Anyone who isn’t meeting the Daily Recommended Allowance (DRA) for iron is at risk for developing iron deficiency. Requirements vary greatly depending on age and gender. An adult women’s daily iron requirements are 18 mg/day, whereas an adult male’s is only 8mg/day. Children and adolescents requirements can range from 7-15 mg/day. *For more details on iron requirements check out the websites found at the end of this article.
There are several other subgroups of people who are at higher risk for developing iron deficiency. It is especially important for the groups below to ensure they consume enough iron in their diets.
- Pregnant women – Pregnancy increases a mother-to-be’s iron requirements to 27 mg/day due to increases in her blood volume and because of the needs of the developing baby. Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk of delivering a premature or low-birth-weight baby.
- Vegetarians/Vegans – People who practice vegetarianism are at higher risk of iron deficiency because they do not consume meat, a rich source of iron.
- Athletes – It has been estimated that athletes who engage in intense endurance training require 30% more iron than they otherwise would.
- People with gastrointestinal diseases – Autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease can cause damage to the wall of your intestines. This can impair the body’s ability to absorb iron.
The best way to prevent iron deficiency is to ensure you are eating a balanced diet containing a variety of iron rich foods. In foods, iron is found in one of two forms; heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is only found in meat, poultry, fish and shellfish. Non-heme iron primarily comes from plant sources. Some good sources of non-heme iron are beans (including pinto, kidney, soybeans and lentils), dark green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, enriched rice, whole-grain and enriched breads, dried fruits, nuts, seeds and eggs.
It’s important to note that heme iron is much easier for the body to absorb than non-heme iron. In fact, the body absorbs 2 to 3 times more iron from animal sources than from plants. To increase your body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron you can eat vitamin C rich foods, like citrus fruit, tomatoes, peppers, berries, kiwis, broccoli or cauliflower with your meals. Conversely, the polyphenols contained in tea and coffee inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron, so it’s best to avoid these beverages during mealtime.
Be aware that more is not necessarily better when it comes to iron in your diet. Consuming iron in excessive amounts can lead to toxicity, which actually increases your risk for developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Iron toxicity has also been linked to several neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. So, unless prescribed by a doctor, it is not advisable to take iron supplements.
For more information
For more information about iron deficiency and how you can prevent it, check out the links below:
*originally published on www.dietitianabroad.com on January 30, 2014