Iron: Are you Getting Enough?

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Feeling tired all the time? It could be more than just the exhaustion of your daily grind or tough workouts. Read on to learn about the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency.

While most people who are active and live full lives feel worn out by the end of the day, feeling exhausted all the time could be a sign that your iron is low.

What is Iron?

Iron is a mineral that plays an important role in keeping you healthy and energized. More specifically, iron is an important part of a protein called hemoglobin, which is what helps your body move oxygen in your blood to the many cells in your body that need it.

Keeping your iron levels in a healthy range is really important for keeping your body healthy.

Unfortunately many people, and women in particular, do not get enough iron and have reduced iron stores. In fact, around 9% of Canadian women aged 19-49 years have depleted iron stores, but many more are at risk.

What are the Risk Factors for Low Iron Levels?

● Physical activity

  • In particular, endurance sports such as cross-country skiing and distance running

● Vegan, vegetarian, or mostly plant-based diets

  • The type of iron found in plant-based foods is not as easy for our body to absorb

● Heavy menstrual losses for females

  • Often caused by hormonal contraception and IUDs

● Gastrointestinal (GI) conditions

  • Such as Crohn’s disease, Colitis, Celiac Disease, or H. pylori infection

● Frequent blood donation

From Iron Deficiency to Iron Deficiency Anemia - What’s in a Name?

Iron Deficiency - this is when your iron stores are reduced. If not identified and corrected, it can lead to Iron Deficiency Anemia.

Iron Deficiency Anemia - this condition is less common than Iron Deficiency, but it’s more serious. In Iron Deficiency Anemia, your red blood cells become smaller than normal and paler than usual.

There are a variety of other types of anemia as well, but they are less common than Iron Deficiency Anemia.

What are the Symptoms:

Whether it’s Iron Deficiency or Iron Deficiency Anemia, the symptoms are usually quite similar. People with Iron Deficiency Anemia are likely to have more symptoms and they are likely to be more severe compared to people with Iron Deficiency.

Signs and Symptoms that you may have Iron Deficiency or Iron Deficiency Anemia:

  • Low energy, weakness/fatigue

  • Frequent illnesses or infections

  • Cold intolerance (the feeling that you can’t get warm)

  • Shortness of breath on exertion or with exercise

  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

  • Headaches

  • Irritability

  • Cravings to eat ice chips

  • Spoon shaped nails

  • Cracks or sores on corners of mouth

If you have risk factors and symptoms, please go to your primary care provider to discuss getting your iron levels checked.

Depending on the results a few different treatments may be recommended:

Moderately low levels of iron can often be corrected through diet, with or without the use of an iron supplement.

Very low levels of iron or Iron Deficiency Anemia is often treated with first with a high dose iron supplement and then more long-term with an iron rich diet.

High dose iron supplements are notorious for causing stomach discomfort shortly after being ingested. Unfortunately, to improve absorption, it is best to take them on an empty stomach and with a source of vitamin C (such as a glass of grapefruit juice or an orange).

How Much Iron Do I Need?

* Intake recommendations are from a combination of food and supplements    **Vegetarians need almost twice as much iron compared to non-vegetarians.

* Intake recommendations are from a combination of food and supplements

**Vegetarians need almost twice as much iron compared to non-vegetarians.

How To Get Enough Iron:

Iron foods fall into two categories: heme iron (animal foods) and non-heme iron (plant foods).

Heme iron sources include beef, pork, lamb, liver, fish, poultry. Our bodies absorb this type of iron better than non-heme iron sources.

Non-heme iron sources include: lentils, chickpeas, beans, dried apricots, and fortified cereals. Our bodies absorb more non-heme iron from foods when we combine them with heme-iron containing foods (lentils and beef in a stew) and when we combine them with vitamin C rich foods (chickpea salad with tomatoes).

For a more complete list of food sources of iron please visit https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Factsheets/Food-Sources-of-Iron.aspx

In addition to the types of iron and how to increase their absorption, there are also several factors that can reduce the amount of iron you can get from your food. These include:

  • Tannins in coffee and teas

  • Phytates found in whole grains and legumes

  • Calcium-rich foods

What Does This Mean for Me?

If you do not have problems with your iron levels, and you eat a lot of iron rich foods, there is no reason to adjust your eating pattern to help your body increase the amount of iron it absorbs.

However, if you have some of the risk factors listed above, or if you have an Iron Deficiency or Iron Deficiency Anemia, it may become important to adjust the timing of when you eat certain foods and drinks so you can make it easier for your body to get as much iron from the food you eat as possible. Working with a Registered Dietitian to optimize your iron intake and absorption can help improve iron levels and prevent Iron Deficiencies.

Lindsay Van der Meer, MHS, RD

References:

Alberta Health Services (2016). Nutrition Guideline Healthy Term Infants and Children: Iron. Retrieved from:

https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/nutrition/if-nfs-ng-healthy-infants-key-nutrients-iron.pdf

Statistics Canada (2015). Iron Sufficiency of Canadians. Retrieved from Canadian Health Measures Survey https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2012004/article/11742-eng.htm

Dietitians of Canada (2019). Managing Iron Deficiency. Retrieved from http://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/Managing-Iron-Deficiency.aspx

Dietitians of Canada (2019). What You Need To Know About Iron. Retrieved from: http://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vitamins-and-Minerals/What-You-Need-To-Know-About-Iron.aspx#.Vs8sWpMrKRs