Iron's principal function is to transport oxygen throughout the body. It provides energy to the body on a daily basis and is an essential part of our bodily functions. Unfortunately, it is quite common to become iron deficient. Approximately one-third of the world's population is iron deficient and about 5% of Australians have an iron deficiency. Symptoms of low iron include mood swings, loss of appetite, frequent infections, fatigue, shortness of breath, increased sweating, odd food cravings, and failure to grow at a normal rate (in children). If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, it is important to consult a medical practitioner for appropriate testing and diagnosis.
There are many common reasons why someone would become iron deficient. It is most common for menstruating women, women during pregnancy, post-menopausal women, individuals with digestive issues or illnesses (like Crohn's or colitis for example), people dealing with food restrictions, and athletes to suffer from iron deficiencies. Iron is lost through sweat, skin, urine, gastrointestinal tract, and menstruation. It is common for people who practice high-intensity exercises to suffer iron losses compared to someone who is sedentary. Red blood cells also break down faster in those who exercise due to the mechanical force output during a workout (ex: foot strikes during running can destroy red blood cells in the feet).
Unfortunately, there is no magic diet to cure iron deficiencies in the body. However, there are some things that you can do to help prevent low iron and increase iron in the body. Today we are going to discuss what are some of those things.
Firstly, it is important to note that only a professional GP is able to provide a proper diagnosis (through blood tests) and treatment for iron deficiencies. Most individuals that are suffering from iron deficiencies will require supplements of iron and an increase of iron-rich foods in their diet.
If you have been advised to take an iron supplement, note that it is best absorbed when it is paired with Vitamin C. Taking a vitamin C supplement or eating vitamin C rich foods, like citruses (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit), bell peppers, tomatoes, certain vegetables, strawberries, and white potatoes along with an iron supplement (or iron-rich food) can help with the iron's absorption in the body and is recommended. The consumption of iron-rich foods is encouraged to prevent and increase iron levels, however, shouldn't be replacing an iron supplement when iron levels are low in the body.
Dietary iron is classified into two different groups: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron, which mainly comes from meat, poultry, and fish (red meat is the highest known source of dietary iron), is most present in red blood cells and muscle tissue and is typically well absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron, is mostly present in vegetables (dark leafy greens) and is generally poorly absorbed in the body and highly affected by inhibiting substances present in the diet. Heme iron is absorbed by the digestive tract about twice as well as non-heme iron. Plus, animal-derived foods (especially red meat) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are the main enhancers of non-heme food iron absorption. Common substance inhibitors are found in black and herbal teas, coffee, wine, legumes, certain cereals, and certain fruits and veggies. So it is best to avoid these when supplementing with iron. It is now becoming evident and common to observe iron deficiencies in people following vegan or vegetarian diets.
Overall, the best way to enhance iron absorption and increase it in the body is by supplementing with an iron supplement and vitamin C. However, you can help prevent iron deficiencies by regularly incorporating iron-rich foods into your diet. These include meat, fish, and poultry, as well as iron from dark leafy vegetables. Note that iron consumed from vegetables is twice as less absorbed than animal-derived iron, and it is recommended to take with a supplement of vitamin C.
Want to learn more facts on nutrition? Consult our nutritionist, Kelissa Ouellet at The Gym Melbourne. Get your first session on us!
B.Sc, PTS, ICF