What are the symptoms?
Insufficient iron in your body can leave you feeling tired, breathless and with difficulty concentrating. You may look pale and experience headaches, frequent infections or general irritability. Iron is needed in the body to make haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells and myoglobin in muscle cells, to transport oxygen to your tissues.
Who is at risk?
Women are more at risk than men of iron deficiency, as are vegetarians, vegans, teenagers and athletes. Surprisingly, an estimated 1 in 4 children under 3 years have low iron levels in NZ which, left untreated, can lead to growth problems, learning and behavioural difficulties. Most at risk in this group are children born prematurely or with a low birth weight, especially those that have grown quickly.
How to replace iron?
To replenish your iron stores, increase foods in your diet high in iron. There are two types of iron in food, haem and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found in meat, chicken and fish and is easily absorbed. Try to include 3-4 portions of lean red meat to your diet a week and then add in poultry, pork and fish as well. Non-haem iron is not so well absorbed, but can be found in greens (spinach, silverbeet), beans, tofu, lentils, pumpkin and grains (oatmeal, cereals, wholegrain bread). Eating vitamin C with these foods can improve how well it absorbs into the body. Separating them from tea or milk can also help, as does combining haem and non-haem foods in a meal.
When to supplement?
Supplements can be used if levels don’t increase sufficiently with foods. Tablets and liquids are available but should only be taken after you have had a blood test through your Doctor to confirm your levels. Using the measures above to improve absorption also has the benefit of reducing diarrhoea or constipation that is common with supplements. Other side effects include black stools, nausea and indigestion. Supplements are normally taken for 3-6 months and then levels re-tested.