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Iron deficiency and anaemia

Iron is among the minerals that are indispensable to the health and functioning of the body. If intake isn't sufficient, imbalance occurs and can lead to a number of health problems, including iron-deficiency anaemia.

Iron deficiency and anaemia
© Jupiter

Iron plays an instrumental role in constituting the haemoglobin contained in the blood's red cells, the myoglobin in muscles and many enzymes essential to the functioning of the body.

Iron is found only in very small quantities in the body and part of this iron is eliminated every day. Therefore, iron loss needs to be compensated with food intake in order to maintain a sufficient amount of iron.

Health risks due to iron deficiency

Iron deficiency results in anaemia and leads to deterioration of physical and intellectual skills and lowered resistance to infections. During pregnancy, it raises low baby weight risk as well as newborn morbidity and mortality. In a large portion of the developing world, iron deficiency anaemia is a serious public health issue, which may in some countries affect up to half of women and children.

There are several degrees of iron deficiency. The most acute deficiency is anaemia, which sometimes causes clinical symptoms such as pallor, shortness of breath and fatigue. Iron deficiency is most commonly diagnosed through blood tests. In addition to the measurement of haemoglobins, other indicators can be used to measure body iron storage and identify mild iron deficiencies.

This is worth noting because, even in patients without anaemia and therefore no apparent signs, iron deficiency can be harmful to health and lead to reduced physical stamina, diminished intellectual performance, lower resistance to infections and pregnancy issues.

Maintaining iron balance

Iron balance is heavily dependent on body iron requirements, which vary across stages of life. Requirements are highest in:

  • Children and adolescents on account of rapid growth;
  • Women, from puberty through to menopause due to iron loss incurred in the process of menstruation;
  • Pregnant women due to the needs of the foetus and the transformations taking place in their bodies.

Meeting iron requirements is more difficult that most people suspect. Recent studies have confirmed this: a large part of the population has insufficient iron intake due to insufficient iron concentration in the food they eat. Even a country of plenty like the UK can be faced with anaemia issues resulting from food deficiency.

Food sources of iron

Food contains variable amounts of iron. There are two forms of iron, haem-iron and non-haem iron, which are differently absorbed by the body.

Non-haem iron is contained in plant sources, eggs and dairy produce. It is hardly bio-available; meaning that barely 5% of it is absorbed. Non-haem iron absorption varies depending on the type of food. Tea, coffee, wine and egg yolks decreases absorption, while meat, fish, fruits and vitamin-C-rich vegetables stimulate it.

Haem iron is found in the blood and muscles of animals, from meat, fish and animal sources; with about 25% of this type of iron absorbed by the body.

Spinach won't make you much stronger...

The foods richest in iron are offal, meat and dry vegetables. Greens, and more particularly spinach, are rather low in iron; contrary to what Popeye may have led us to believe. The notion of how much iron is contained in a specific type of food includes more than just iron intake. It also includes how much is actually absorbed by the body.

In practice

Prevent iron deficiency by consuming sufficient amounts of easily absorbed iron rich foods, especially for children, adolescents, pregnant and breastfeeding women. In the event of iron deficiency anaemia, you will need to see your doctor for a comprehensive medical check-up and medical monitoring.

Posted 30.06.2010


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