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by Alison Mitchell

Iron requirements for women are around 80% higher than for men because of menstruation and child bearing. More than half of all women consume less than the recommended 10- 15 mg daily. Those most likely to develop iron deficiency include:

Pregnant women Women with heavy periods People with low gastric acid levels
Frequent dieters Children People who cannot afford good food

Iron deficiency
Iron is stored in the body in places other than the red blood cells. These include the liver, bone marrow, spleen and muscles. A true test for anaemia will test if there is a depletion of iron in the red blood cells (the haemoglobin level), and in the organ stores elsewhere in the body (the ferritin level). Iron deficiency causes the symptoms described below and should respond to a low dose iron supplement. Iron should not be taken unnecessarily as it will accumulate in the body and may become toxic. If symptoms do not respond, seek advice and ask for a blood test.

Symptoms of low iron levels

Poor stamina Shortness of breath
A red sore tongue and cracks in corners of mouth Concave fingernails
Reduced resistance to infection Poor digestion caused by low gastric levels
Unreasonable limb fatigue Dizziness

Types of Iron
There are two forms that iron can come in from your food – as haeme (animal sources) or non-haeme iron (plant sources such as vegetables and grains). The haeme form of iron is more bioavailable to humans than the non-haeme form.

Improving iron absorption
On average, only 10-15% of the iron consumed is actually absorbed, and this may be as low as 2% in people with certain gastrointestinal disorders. Apart from increasing the intake of iron-rich foods, there are a number of other ways to increase iron levels;

  • Eat Vitamin C rich foods with foods high in iron – it increases non-haeme iron absorption by 50%.
  • Add acidic dressings, such as lemon and vinegar, to iron rich foods
  • Eat bitter green vegetables or fruit before or during the meal to increase the flow of gastric acid, which will in turn improve absorption of minerals. Alcoholic aperitifs, grapefruit, and bitter green vegetables can all be used.
  • Eating sources of haeme iron at the same time as non-haeme iron sources will improve absorption.
  • Vitamin A and beta-carotene increase the absorption of non-haeme iron.
  • Avoid tea (especially black tea) and coffee until the iron deficiency improves. The tannin in tea binds with iron making it difficult to absorb. Coffee also reduces absorption, especially if taken after a meal. Don’t take iron tablets with tea or coffee.
  • Avoid taking iron supplements within 2 hours of taking zinc or calcium supplements as they will competitively inhibit iron absorption.
Sources of Iron – Recommended Daily Allowance 10 – 15 mg / day (30mg in pregnancy)
Animal Sources mg/100g Grains mg/100g Beans and Vegetables mg/100g Fruits mg/100g Other mg/100g
Eggs 2.0 Wheat germ 10.0 Haricot beans 2.5 Apricots fresh 0.4 Almonds 4.2
Lean beef 3.4 Wheat bran 12.9 Broccoli tops 1.0 Apricots, dried 4.1 Brazil nuts 2.9
Lean lamb 2.7 Raw oatmeal 4.1 Leeks 2.0 Avocado 1.5 Hazelnuts 1.1
Lean pork 1.3 Soya 0.1 Lentils 2.4 Currants 1.8 Peanuts 2.0
Chicken 1.9 White bread 1.7 Lettuce 0.9 Figs, dried 4.2 Walnuts 2.4
Cod 0.4 Brown bread 2.5 Mushrooms 1.0 Dates 1.6
Sardines 2.4 Rye biscuits 3.7 Spring onions 1.2 Peaches, dried 6.8
Mussels 7.7 Parsley, Raw 8.0 Prunes 8.0
Oysters 6.0 Peas 1.2 Raisins 1.6
Spinach 3.4 Raspberries 1.2

Alison Mitchell

Health Dimensions ©2004