In the Western world, with so much food available to us, it’s hard to imagine large numbers of us could be potentially deficient in any element of nutrition. And yet 1 in 5 pre-menopausal women in the UK are deficient in iron. Even more ironic is that that one person probably appears to be healthier than the rest of us!
Why is this? Because risk factors for iron deficiency are often the same elements you find in healthy women, so it is hard to identify.
1) Low iron intake. As red meat is still the richest source of iron available to us, vegetarians are at greater risk of suffering low iron intake than meat eaters.
2) Regular periods. The monthly blood loss involved in a regular menstrual cycle is significant and therefore affects iron levels which are stored in our blood.
3) Regular exercise. Research has shown that physical activity has a negative effect on iron stores in the body.
Low iron levels lead to anemia, which has been linked to reduced physical ability and endurance, tiredness, lethargy and fainting.
Not what you want as a young, usually energetic female.
So iron levels and the threat of anemia need to be taken quite seriously. If you are a high risk candidate and the symptoms sound familiar then you can easily arrange an iron level test with your practice doctor or GP. If you are diagnosed as iron deficient, then they will prescribe you iron supplements, probably ferrous sulphate. But you will also need to look at your diet and try to add more iron-rich foods in to it. If you are vegetarian, stock up on dark green vegetables including such delicacies as spinach, broccoli and watercress. Snack on dried fruits – figs, apricots and dates – and nuts, particularly Brazil nuts, Cashew nuts and Walnuts.
And if you fancy a treat, chocolate and ginger biscuits also have iron! The highest levels of iron are found in red meat, but oily fish also has high levels so if you are a fish eating vegetarian, make sure you have plenty of tuna and sardines.
Unfortunately many people who are prescribed iron supplements do suffer constipation as a result. This is particularly true for pregnant women who are often low in iron and also often more susceptible to constipation. Spatone do an ‘iron water’ that you take with orange juice (don’t try to drink it on its own) or if you prefer a supplement, BioCare produce a Beetroot Extract supplement that has high levels of iron, but in its food form so without any of the normal side effects of iron supplementation. It also has all the antioxidants found in beetroot so there’s an additional benefit there.
Iron deficiency affects 20% of pre-menopausal women and can have a huge impact on your lifestyle. So don’t ignore the issue – get tested, change your diet and supplement if necessary. When a problem is so easy to solve, there’s no argument for doing anything else.