This year, World Iron Awareness Week runs from August 24 – August 30. It sets to raise awareness of the importance of iron for the body, how you can recognise signs that you may not be getting enough and most importantly, what you can do to ensure you are getting enough iron through the food that you choose to eat!
Iron is an essential mineral needed for optimal health and wellbeing. It has three main roles within the body, including:
Carrying oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.
Supporting optimal immunity. Interestingly, the cells that help us to fight infections, require adequate amounts of iron.
Producing energy! The internal process involved in releasing energy from the food that we eat, requires iron.
While iron is needed by everyone throughout life, there are certain life stages that require higher amounts. These are:
Infants, children and adolescents due to rapid growth
Pregnant women due to increased blood volume as well as needing extra to build baby’s iron stores
Females who are menstruating. Blood loss is a major determinant of iron status. Those that have regular blood loss will have higher iron needs to cover this loss.
Athletes and very active people who have higher energy and nutrient requirements due to high training loads
Despite the importance of iron for optimal health, many people do not get enough. The last national nutrition survey here in New Zealand revealed that levels of iron deficiency have more than doubled over the last 12 years. Worryingly, 8 out of 10 toddlers don’t meet their recommended daily intake of iron, 14% of our children under two are deficient, 1 in 14 women are low in iron and over a third of girls aged 15- 18 years do not meet their daily iron needs.
There are many symptoms that could indicate you may be low in iron:
Feeling lethargic or tired
Susceptible to illnesses/infection
Feeling the cold easily
Having trouble concentrating
If you identify with any of the above symptoms, you could potentially be low in iron. To find out for certain, you would need to see your doctor and organise a blood test.
One way in which you can prevent iron deficiency or not getting enough is to enjoy a wide variety of iron-rich foods in both meals and snacks.
Iron is found in both animal and plant foods. The predominant form of iron found in animal foods is called haem iron. Haem iron tends to be more efficiently absorbed by the body (around 25%) and its bioavailability is less affected by other factors. Non-haem iron is found in both animal and plant foods but is not absorbed as efficiently as haem iron (only about 5% is absorbed by the body). Its bioavailability tends to be more influenced by other foods eaten at the same time as well as the iron status of an individual.
Rich food sources of haem include red meat such as beef and lamb, mussels and other seafood, organ meats and dark poultry meat. Non-haem iron can be found in foods such as dried fruit, eggs, vegetables, bread, legumes and cereals.
There are many practical things you can do to maximise iron absorption. These include:
Eating plenty of Vitamin C-rich foods with your meals. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb non-haem iron non efficiently. Spaghetti Bolognese is a perfect example of this working!
Enjoying both animal and plant foods together. When you eat these together the non-haem iron is made more bioavailable to the body by up to four times.
Aiming to enjoy red meat which is a rich source of haem iron a few times each week. Remember plant foods for optimal health too!
Drinking tea and coffee between meals rather than with a meal. The tannins in tea (and coffee too) can bind to iron in food and prevent the body from absorbing it efficiently. As a guide, drink tea or coffee at least an hour either side of meals.
For more information, please visit www.ironweek.co.nz.
To find the recipe for the Leftover Roast Lamb Curry as pictured in this post, please visit here.
Note: If you're vegetarian/vegan, simply use roasted vegetables in place of the lamb and top with spiced roasted chickpeas as pictured.