Iron Deficiency: The most common nutritional disorder in the world

Monday, 16 May 16

By Jaime Rose Chambers

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), iron deficiency is the most common and widely spread nutritional disorder in the world. Most alarmingly it’s the only nutritional deficiency prevalent in both developing and developed countries where a whopping 30% of the world’s population is iron deficient. In developed countries, the most vulnerable populations are women of reproductive age.

Iron is a mineral we get from our diet that is needed to make haemoglobin, a part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen through our body.

Iron deficiency results from:

  • Inadequate intake of iron-rich foods – belief it’s unhealthy, dislikes, vegetarians, vegans, chronic dieters, detox diets, expense of iron-containing foods
  • Higher requirements for iron - such as in pregnancy and for athletes
  • Blood loss – such as for women with heavy periods or blood loss within the body 
  • Inability to absorb iron – for example coeliac disease can hinder the absorption of iron in the small intestine

When iron levels drop very low, this is known as iron deficiency anaemia and is when symptoms often intensify and can be incredibly debilitating. The most common symptoms of iron deficiency are:

  • Tiredness and lethargy – this is quite specific and has been described as feeling like you’re dragging yourself around 
  • Headache
  • Dizziness and lightheaded 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pale skin
  • During pregnancy, untreated iron deficiency can lead to premature births and low birth weight babies

If you suspect you’ve got an iron deficiency, the first thing to do is have a blood test with your doctor. Don’t self-diagnose because too much iron can be toxic. Once an iron deficiency has been established, the treatment options to restore normal iron levels are as follows:

  1. Dietary changes – treating iron deficiency may be as simple as increasing intake of foods that contain iron. The richest sources of iron come from red meat (beef, veal, lamb), chicken, turkey, pork, fish and seafood. Plant sources include green leafy veges, tofu, pulses, iron-fortified cereals and bread. Plant sources of iron are not as easily absorbed as animal sources so a trick is to eat them with something that contains vitamin C like lemon, orange, kiwi, strawberries, tomato or broccoli to maximize the iron absorption. Also, avoid drinking tea and coffee or taking antacids around mealtimes as they inhibit the absorption of iron. 
  2. Supplement – This may be in the form of an oral iron supplement or liquid. Oral supplements can cause some people gut discomfort, constipation and dark stools. If this is the case, a liquid supplement may be better tolerated.
  3. Iron infusion – intra-venous iron infusions and injections by a doctor may be necessary when oral supplements may not be tolerated, well absorbed in the gut such as in an active episode of coeliac disease or when iron levels are dangerously low and need to be restored faster. 
  4. For more severe causes of iron deficiency, your doctor may give you a referral to a specialist to investigate further.

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