Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, yet as most people who have iron-deficiency only have one or two symptoms, it can often go un-diagnosed and untreated. It’s estimated that 3% of men and 8% of women in the UK have iron deficiency anaemia.
There can be many reasons for iron-deficiency, yet it’s rarely simply down to lack of iron in the diet (although this can be true for vegans or people who eat very few animal products). Iron deficiency is often linked to other medical conditions such as coeliac disease, stomach ulcers, overuse of NSAIDS, heavy menstruation or pregnancy. People who exercise a great deal are also more prone to having low iron.
The best source of iron is red meat such as beef, lamb and pork. It is possible to get some iron from non-animal sources but this type of iron is not well absorbed in the body so it can be hard to rely solely on vegetarian sources.
It’s also worth noting that certain foods can reduce the uptake of iron in the body - phytate for example, a compound found in many grains, nuts, legumes and vegetables like spinach can prevent iron being absorbed. This is another reason why vegetarians can struggle to get enough iron without making a conscious effort. Tannins, the substance found in tea, coffee and red wine also reduce iron absorption - so always wait at least half an hour after eating to have that cuppa!
If you suspect you may be deficient in iron then ask your doctor for a quick and simple blood test. Iron supplements can help restore levels but it’s important not to self prescribe an iron supplement without having a blood test first.
Written by Ruth Tongue