By Belinda Russo (Accredited Practising Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist)

from Tiny Tummies Nutrition

IRON DEFICIENCY ANEMIA IN WOMEN – Did you wake up this morning feeling like you’ve just run a marathon, in heels, with a couple of screaming toddlers dragging along on your ankles? Did you accidentally put the milk in the pantry and cereal in the fridge…again? You could be the 1 in 4 women with a form of iron deficiency known as iron deficiency anemia (IDA).

Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body stores of the mineral, iron, are insufficient to make the very important protein haemoglobin. Haemoglobin catches a ride on red blood cells to deliver oxygen to tissues and muscles so they can function optimally. So when there is insufficient iron the rest of the body can’t get the oxygen it needs. This is when symptoms of IDA become more noticeable:

# General, ongoing fatigue

# Weakness

# Pale skin

# Shortness of breath

# Dizziness

# Tingling/crawling sensation in legs

# Tongue swelling/soreness

# Cold hands and feet

# Fast or irregular heartbeat

# Brittle nails

# Headaches

# Pica-craving non-food items eg. dirt, ice

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms it is advisable that you speak to your GP. Typically a simple blood test is all that is needed to diagnose IDA although the cause of the condition may need further investigation. There are many possible causes of IDA, however, the most common are:

#  Inadequate iron intake- the body cannot make iron so we must consume foods rich in iron to keep ensure we have enough circulating in our blood and stored in cells for the body to draw upon in times when we need a little extra iron eg. during an infection

#  Pregnancy or blood loss due to menstruation or childbirth

#  Internal bleeding- stomach ulcers, polyps in the colon or intestines, and colon cancer are just a few conditions which can cause internal bleeding

#  Inability to absorb iron even when you are consuming enough dietary iron- undiagnosed or poorly managed coeliac disease, intestinal surgery (eg gastric bypass) are examples of conditions where iron absorption is impaired.

#  Vegetarians and vegans also need to be mindful that the type of iron consumed through plant-based foods is not as well absorbed as the iron found in meat and there are certain components of plants that inhibit absorption of iron in the body as well. This is not to say that meeting iron requirements through a plant-based diet is impossible, that’s not the case at all- it just takes a little more careful planning!

#  Infants and children (especially those born prematurely) also tend to be at higher risk of iron deficiency particularly during growth spurts due to the increased demand for iron during these times

Most of the causes mentioned above can be treated with some simple dietary changes, in addition to iron supplementation if your GP advises this is necessary (usually in cases of severe IDA).

When I am seeing a client with IDA, leading into how we are going to manage the condition through dietary changes is typically the part of the consult where I hear a resounding- but I don’t like red meat! And my usual reply is that they don’t have to eat it if they don’t want to! Yes, it is true that the iron in red meat is more readily absorbed than that in plant-based foods, and that per 100g, red meat is a richer source of iron than white meat or fish.

However, if you completely detest red meat or for ethical reasons choose not to eat it, there are many other ways for you to meet your iron requirements without having to force feed yourself red meat or compromise your ethical beliefs.
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Putting this information into something a little more practical, a woman aged 19-50 years could meet her iron requirements with the following:

Breakfast: 2 Weetbix with milk, a slice of wholegrain toast with peanut butter and a piece of fruit

Mid-morning: Small handful of cashews and small tub of yoghurt

Lunch: Chicken/tuna/egg and salad sandwich on 2 slices of wholegrain bread plus a piece of fruit

Mid afternoon: 8 halves dried apricots and 2 slices of cheese

Dinner: 100g tofu or 100g steak with vegetables (including spinach) and 1 small potato

This example provides approximately 20mg of iron, and the inclusion of Vitamin C rich foods (such as fruit) with meals helps increase the absorption of iron from plant-based foods. Animal protein (red meat, chicken etc) will also help increase absorption of iron from plant based foods. It is advisable to avoid consuming tea, coffee, unprocessed bran, and some herbal medicines with meals as these can block iron absorption (just enjoy them 30-60 minutes before or after meals instead).

So, despite what the ads say, you won’t necessarily be ‘better on beef’ or need to ‘get more pork on your fork’ (but if you enjoy beef and pork-no worries!) to prevent or manage iron deficiency- it just takes a little careful planning to ensure that you are getting the iron your body needs, and that it is absorbing it effectively. And when supplementation is advised by your GP, it is best to combine this with some simple dietary changes.

September 5 – 9 is Women’s Health Week- visit

For more information about this great initiative raising awareness about women’s health issues.

If you have been diagnosed with IDA, or if you would like to know more about optimal nutrition for prevention of IDA for either yourself, your child or another family member, book an appointment with our Accredited Practising Dietitian for expert tailored nutrition advice at: