Iron is an important mineral which is needed for many different functions in the body. Its main role is to help in the formation of haemoglobin in red blood cells, which carries oxygen around the body.

A deficiency of iron can result in anaemia, with symptoms including extreme tiredness/fatigue, shortness of breath and feeling lightheaded or dizzy.

Women are at greater risk of iron deficiency as they have higher iron needs due to blood loss through menstruation. This is more likely if your periods are particularly heavy or prolonged. Pregnancy also significantly increases iron needs.

Causes of iron Deficiency

However, there are many possible causes of iron deficiency, including:

  • Inadequate dietary intake. According to the findings of the 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey, 23% of Australian girls and women (aged 2 years and over) don’t consume enough iron in their diet. What’s more, those with the highest iron needs were less likely to meet their iron requirements – 40% of 14-18yo girls and 38% of 19-50yo women were found to be eating less than the recommended intake of iron.
  • Increased requirements, such as during adolescent growth spurts and pregnancy, or in athletes.
  • Blood loss due to heavy periods, regular blood donations, other health conditions (such as peptic ulcers, bowel cancer, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) and some medications, such as aspirin.
  • Reduced absorption of iron due to other health conditions, such as coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease.

Treatment of iron deficiency involves addressing the underlying cause and improving iron intake through diet, and the addition of supplements where needed. While red meat is a good source of well-absorbed iron, iron is also found in fortified cereals and many plant foods including legumes, tofu, tempeh, wholegrains (particularly quinoa and amaranth), dark green leafy vegetables and nuts.

The iron from plant foods (called non-haem iron) isn’t as well absorbed as the heam iron in animal foods, but can be improved by having foods high in vitamin C at the same meal and keeping tea and coffee consumption separate to meals.

What to do if you think you’re iron deficient

If you suspect you might have iron deficiency, it’s important to see your doctor to have your iron levels checked. This can be done through a blood test. Taking an iron supplement without first checking your iron levels isn’t recommended as too much iron is also a problem and can build up in your body and cause other health problems. It’s also important that your doctor helps you to work out the cause of your iron deficiency.

For more information:

4364.0.55.008 – Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12

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