Iron Deficiency Facts

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Mix citrus with spinach for maximum iron absorption.
Mix citrus with spinach for maximum iron absorption. (Image: Lesyy/iStock/Getty Images)

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can strike both sexes at any age, but premenopausal women are most likely to develop a deficiency. You can avoid the problem by eating a balanced diet that includes the recommended amount of iron. If you have any concerns, talk to your health care provider to be sure you don’t develop iron-deficiency anemia.

Groups at Risk for Deficiency

As a general guideline, women and children are the two groups at the highest risk for iron deficiency. Fourteen percent of children under the age of 2 are deficient, but the incidence drops to 4 percent by age 5, according to the CDC.

While only about 2 percent of adult men are iron depleted, about 9 percent of premenopausal women are deficient. The risk further increases for women athletes, reported the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology in June 2012.

Causes of Iron Deficiency

The most common cause of iron deficiency is blood loss from menstruation, frequent blood donations or chronic bleeding due to a medical condition, notes the Merck Manual Professional Edition.

Pregnant women need extra iron because their blood volume increases. Infants, young children and adolescents also need more iron to support normal growth spurts. During these stages, a deficiency may develop if iron consumption doesn’t meet the body’s increased need.

Deficiency is also caused by lack of dietary iron and medical conditions that interfere with iron absorption, such as Crohn’s disease or gastric bypass surgery.

Dangers Associated With Low Iron

When you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make a sufficient number of red blood cells, and eventually this causes anemia. In addition to feeling tired and weak, iron-deficiency anemia hinders the ability to think, weakens the immune system and can delay motor development in infants.

During pregnancy, an iron deficiency affects the mother’s health, but it’s especially dangerous for the baby. Babies are more likely to be born prematurely when the mother is low in iron. The baby may not be able to store enough iron, which carries forward into the first year of life.

How to Avoid Iron Deficiency

As long as you don’t have an underlying medical condition, you can avoid iron deficiency by getting the recommended dietary intake.

Men and postmenopausal women should consume 8 milligrams of iron daily, while premenopausal women need 18 milligrams. The iron requirement goes up to 27 milligrams daily for pregnant women.

If you don't eat animal products, you can still meet your iron requirement with a well-balanced diet. Only about 10 percent of the iron from plant-based foods is absorbed, however, compared with 18 percent absorbed from a mixed diet.

For this reason, the Linus Pauling Institute suggests that men and postmenopausal women who are vegans or vegetarians may need 14 milligrams of iron daily, and premenopausal women should aim for 33 milligrams.

Dietary Sources

Animal products, such as poultry, fish and lean meat, are good sources of iron. Most of the iron in animal foods is heme iron, which your body readily absorbs.

Many plant-based foods, such as nuts, beans, vegetables and fortified grains, have about the same amount of iron as animal foods. But plants contain nonheme iron, and its absorption is affected by other nutritional factors.

Coffee, tea, legumes and grains contain substances that interfere with the absorption of nonheme iron. On the flip side, nonheme iron absorption increases when it's consumed with heme-containing proteins or foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli and strawberries.

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