Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. This condition is where the body does not have enough iron to produce hemoglobin, a protein in blood that carries oxygen throughout the body. The number of people with this condition is estimated at 2 billion – over 30% of the world’s population – primarily affecting women and children.
One way of preventing, or if diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, is to eat adequate amounts of iron-rich foods. Your body needs the mineral iron along with other nutrients to make hemoglobin and healthy red blood cells. That’s why it’s important to get a regular supply of iron and the best way to get this nutrient is by eating a balanced diet or taking dietary supplements that contain iron.
Why do we need iron?
Every single day your body is busy continuously pumping the mineral iron through the bloodstream. Iron is necessary to produce a protein called hemoglobin which gives red blood cells its color red. Hemoglobin is like a delivery service – it picks up oxygen in the lungs, transporting it through the bloodstream delivering it to our muscles and tissue. Along the way, it picks up carbon dioxide carrying it back to the lungs to be exhaled.
This essential mineral is necessary for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin makes up about two-thirds of the body’s iron. When iron-deficient, your body can’t make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells. A lack of red blood cells is what leads to iron deficiency anemia.
Causes of iron-deficiency anemia
There are many reasons why a person may develop iron deficiency anemia. Causes include:
- Blood loss during menstruation or pregnancy
Women who have heavy menstrual cycles each month or excessive blood loss during childbirth are at risk of iron deficiency anemia.
- Infants and children
Babies born prematurely or with a low birth weight (less than 5.5 lbs) or who don’t get enough iron from breastmilk or formula can be at an increased risk. Older children who are picky eaters or are not eating a varied diet will be at a greater risk particularly during growth spurts where extra iron is needed.
- Diet lacking sufficient iron intake
Not eating enough iron over a long time can bring about a shortage in the body. Vegetarians who don’t eat any meat or other iron-rich foods can have a greater risk. Elderly people who have poor appetites are also at risk.
- Internal bleeding
Excessive or prolonged internal bleeding from an ulcer or using a pain reliever such as aspirin causing bleeding in the stomach can be a cause of iron deficiency anemia.
- Reduced ability to absorb iron
There can be many situations where a person may not be absorbing enough iron –
intestinal surgeries, celiac disease, gastric bypass surgery, all can lower the amount of
- Donating blood frequently
Giving blood can deplete iron stores if it’s done on a routine basis. Hemoglobin levels are always checked before a blood donation and you are only allowed to give blood if the stores are adequate.
- Hookworm infection
In other parts of the developing world, hookworms can be a problem when people walk barefoot on soil infested with the larvae of hookworms. Hookworms live in the lumen of the small intestine where they attach to the intestinal wall resulting in chronic blood loss leading to anemia and malnutrition.
Often the symptoms can be very mild as to go unnoticed but once the body stores of iron become more depleted, symptoms will begin to become more apparent:
- Extreme fatigue
- Pale skin
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Cold hands and feet
- Brittle nails
- Fast heartbeat
- An unusual craving for nonfood substances also known as pica – may include cravings for ice, dirt, laundry starch or other nonfood items.
- Poor appetite
- Frequent infections
- Restless leg syndrome
Complications from iron deficiency anemia
Several health problems can occur if anemia is left untreated:
- Pregnant women are at risk of delivering a premature or low birth weight baby.
- Infants and children can have delayed growth and brain development along with an increased risk of infections.
- Can affect the heart by leading to a rapid or irregular heartbeat which can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure since the heart has to pump more blood to make up for the lack of oxygen in the blood.
Treating iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is easily treated but treatment needs to begin as soon as possible once it is discovered:
- Iron supplements
These are usually over-the-counter and may need to be taken for several months. Infants and small children will be given a liquid form. Absorption of iron pills is increased if taken on an empty stomach unless it causes an upset stomach which then it can be taken with a meal. Avoid taking an antacid with an iron supplement as it will interfere with absorption. Iron pills should be taken with a good source of vitamin C as vitamin C helps improve the absorption of iron. Drinking a small glass of orange juice when you take the iron pill is advised.
- Eat more iron rich foods
The best source of iron is heme iron which is found in animal foods. Our body absorbs iron better (20-30%) from animal sources as opposed to plant sources of iron.
Animal sources of iron that are better absorbed include:
- red meat especially beef and liver
- chicken and turkey
- fish and shellfish
Plant sources of iron contain nonheme iron which is not as well absorbed (1-10%). Plant sources include:
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals and bread
- Peas, lentils, beans such as red, kidney, pinto and soybeans
- Dried fruit such as prunes, raisins, and apricots
- Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables
- Prune juice
- Include a vitamin C rich food at each meal
Vitamin C not only helps absorb iron from an iron supplement but also food sources of iron. Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, also kiwi fruit, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, peppers, spinach, and other leafy green vegetables.
- Phytates and tannins
Compounds called phytates and tannins can interfere with the absorption of iron. Phytates are found in whole grains, bran, and soy products and will bind with iron carrying it on out the body. Tannins are found in black tea and some grains and also reduce the absorption of iron. It is advised to not drink tea with a meal.