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Iron deficiency - are you at risk?

Although iron is found within every cell in the body, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in both developing and developed countries. Many Kiwis may not realise their iron levels are low. Let’s take a closer look at how iron deficiency occurs.

Iron is a mineral we can’t live without - it helps carry oxygen to our tissues and brain, boosts energy levels and strengthens our immunity.

Small amounts of iron are found in a variety of different foods. It can be present in two forms: haem and non-haem iron. Animal products (such as meat, seafood and poultry) are the richest sources of haem iron, while plant foods (such as dried peas, beans, lentils and fruit) contain non-haem iron. It’s much easier for our bodies to absorb haem iron than non-haem.

When we don’t get enough iron from our diet, our bodies start using up the iron it has stored. Once those stores have been depleted, the body begins using up the iron circulating in our blood. Too little iron in the blood can leave us feeling tired, looking pale and finding it difficult to concentrate. Eventually, the body can no longer make enough red blood cells, resulting in iron deficiency anaemia. Beef + Lamb New Zealand is facilitating World Iron Awareness Week to turn our attention to the importance of dietary iron. 

We each have individual nutrition requirements for iron; the amount you need depends on your age and life stage. In particular, it’s important for the following groups of people to keep a close eye on their iron levels:

  • Pregnant women: During pregnancy, women need additional iron to meet their own requirements as well as those of the developing baby and placenta.
  • Growing bodies: For optimal development (both mentally and physically), it’s important for infants, children and teens to meet their nutritional needs.
  • Females: 1 in 14 New Zealand women are low in iron*.
  • Vegetarians and vegans: To maintain iron levels, it is essential for vegetarians and vegans to eat a variety of plant foods that contain non-haem iron. It’s a good idea to include sources of vitamin C as this will help your body absorb non-haem iron.
  • Athletes: Small amounts of iron can be lost through sweat. Long distance runners in particular have an increased risk of low iron as the impact of running can damage red blood cells.

There are other reasons why some people experience iron deficiency. If you are concerned about your iron levels, we recommend you have a chat to your doctor. The only way to be certain you are low in iron is through a blood test.

*University of Otago and Ministry of Health. 2011. A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.