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Understanding Iron, the western world’s largest nutrient deficiency

Posted 16 March 2015 12:00 AM by Dr Sarah Brewer
Understanding Iron

Anaemia affects an estimated 23% of the population across Europe. The most common causes of anaemia are due to lack of iron, folic acid or vitamin B12 in the diet. Pernicious anaemia occurs when the stomach stops producing intrinsic factor, which is needed for the absorption of B12 in the small intestines.

What is it?

Anaemia literally means ‘without blood’ and relates to having low levels of the red pigment, haemoglobin, within your circulating red blood cells. Haemoglobin is vital for carrying oxygen around the body, and when levels fall your cells do not receive enough oxygen for their needs. Symptoms include paleness, tiredness, lack of energy, dizziness, recurrent infections (especially Candida), sore tongue and mouth and shortness of breath and even angina.

Foods that can help

Dietary sources of iron include shellfish, red meats, sardines, wheatgerm, wholemeal bread, egg yolk, green vegetables, nuts, wholegrains, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals. The form of iron found in red meat (haem iron) is up to ten times more easily absorbed than the non-haem iron in vegetables. Meat eaters are therefore less prone to iron-deficiency anaemia than non-meat eaters. Plant based iron is absorbed more easily if eaten together with a source of vitamin C such as fresh orange juice as this converts ferric iron (Fe3+ the most prevalent form in plant foods) into the more soluble ferrous (Fe2+) form. Folate is found mainly in green, leafy vegetables and in fortified cereals. Food sources of vitamin B12 include liver, kidney, oily fish – especially sardines – red meats, white fish, eggs and dairy products. No plants contain consistent amounts, although vegetarian supplements derived from blue-green algae or cultured micro-organisms are available.

Who is at risk?

Anaemia checklist

1. Iron deficiency anaemia is common among certain vulnerable groups, including breast-fed infants, toddlers, adolescents, menstruating and pregnant women, and the elderly.

2. If you think you could have anaemia, seek medical advice.

3. Iron supplements are widely available – take immediately after food and wash them down with orange or other juice to maximise absorption

4. Excess iron is toxic – keep any supplements out of the sight and reach of children.

5. Vitamin B12 is available as an oral spray or sublingual lozenges for absorption in the mouth (to by-pass any lack of intrinsic factor in the gut). It is also given by injection if deficiency is severe.

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