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Iron deficiency - the most common mineral deficiency in the world

3 min read

Iron deficiency is the most common mineral deficiency in the world affecting nearly 1 billion people (15% of the world’s population). Iron is a major nutrient needed by most children and menstruating women. Men on the other hand usually have excess iron since iron is not excreted through the usual routes of urine and sweat. Iron deficiency usually arises by any factor or a combination of three factors which are: low iron diets, poor absorption and excessive loss of blood.

An iron deficiency is widely known as anaemia. Iron deficiency develops gradually and occurs when dietary iron intake does not meet the requirements. People with iron deficiency start with adequate levels in the blood stream, but gradually stores in the body start to deplete. People with iron deficiency have no iron stores to mobilise in case the body suddenly requires extra iron. When iron deficiency becomes advanced it is then classified as anaemia where iron stores, haemoglobin and blood levels of iron cannot meet the daily requirements.

What does the body use iron for?

Iron is found in haemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells, which carries oxygen to all parts of the body. Any surplus iron is stored in the body as a reserve. It is therefore vital that we get our iron from food sources such as iron-rich meat and vegetables or via an iron supplement. When our diet is not sufficient in iron, the body starts to use the reserves and once these have been depleted, the blood does not have enough iron and haemoglobin to oxygenate the body.

In young children Iron is crucial for mental growth and development. Reduced mental performance can occur even with mild iron deficiencies resulting in poor school productivity and reduced concentration in older children.

Low iron levels can have a significant impact on athletic performance since iron is required to manufacture haemoglobin, the oxygen carrier that helps with energy production.Iron is poorly absorbed by the body so although the recommended daily intake of iron is much higher than the daily requirement, in the majority of cases we still do not achieve sufficient iron levels in the body. 

Symptoms of iron deficiency 

The most common symptoms include:

  • lethargy
  • weak and fatigued
  • lack of appetite
  • excessive hair loss
  • shortness of breath
  • mild depression
  • short attention span and irritability
  • restless legs
  • a weakened immune system

The symptoms above could easily be dismissed for stress or event sometimes for laziness. Two reasons why iron deficiency still prevails and its prevalence is high. 

People who are more likely to be iron deficient

  • Vegetarians – if you are a strict vegetarian then you are very like to be iron deficient as meat and poultry are main iron sources for much of the population.
  • Women of child bearing age. Iron deficiency can arise as a result of the loss of blood due to monthly menstruation particularly when periods are heavy.
  • Fussy eaters - most commonly young children and teenagers.
  • Pregnant women often become iron deficient if they do not supplement with iron since the infant utilises the mother’s iron stores and because during pregnancy the body's blood volume increases to serve the growing foetus.

Food sources of iron

Consumption of iron rich foods is important to ensure the optimal function of the body’s processes and to prevent many concerns associated with iron deficiency. Rich sources of iron include:

  • All types of meat including beef, pork and organ meat such as liver
  • All types of poultry especially the darker meat from the legs
  • Eggs
  • Oily fish such as sardines and mackerel as well as oysters and clams
  • Green leafy vegetables including kale, spinach and broccoli 

 If you find it difficult to incorporate iron rich foods into your diet then a supplement might be the answer!

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.