Are you iron deficient? Here’s how to tell

- October 22, 2020 2 MIN READ

When I think of iron, I think of Popeye. The image that comes to mind immediately is Popeye clutching his can of spinach and gulping it down with gigantic biceps bulging. Sadly, Popeye did not get his iron and strength from spinach. It was a great story though!

Iron is a pretty important nutrient.  So important that iron deficiency is ranked in the Top 10 health problems in the world.

It is required for the formation of the oxygen carriers, haemoglobin in the blood and myoglobin in the muscles.  In short, iron carries oxygen around in the blood, so it is right up there with all the essential boxes our bodies need to tick.

The Exercise Conundrum

Heavy exercise increases iron requirements by increasing iron losses from the body through sweat and gastrointestinal bleeding (especially if anti-inflammatory drugs are used for injuries) and red blood cells are also destroyed by continual jarring and impact, particularly running.

Plant Based and Animal Iron Sources Are Not The Same

Iron in food is found in two forms – ‘haem’ iron which is found in animal foods and ‘non-haem’ iron which is found in plant foods.  Spinach and silver beet are touted as great sources of iron and do provide non-haem iron, but it is not well absorbed by our bodies. 

Foods containing non-haem iron can also contain other substances, which make the iron unavailable to your body.  These include tannin (in tea), phytates (in wheat bran and breakfast cereals) and oxalates (in spinach).  The consumption of Vitamin C at the same meal enhances the iron absorption of these foods.

Therefore, if your diet is based mainly on vegetables you may find your iron intake to be not only poor but also completely unavailable.

Where do you get it?

Food Serve mg Iron

Haem foods

Liver 100g (cooked weight) 11.0

Liver pate 40g (2 tbsp) 2-3

Lean steak 100g (cooked weight) 4.0 

Chicken (dark meat) 100g (cooked weight) 1.2

Fish 100g (cooked weight) 0.6-1.4

Oysters 100g (10) 6.0

Salmon 100g (small tin) 1.4

Non-haem foods

Eggs 100g (2) 2.0

Breakfast cereal (fortified) 30g (1 cup) 2.5

Wholemeal bread 60g (2 slices) 1.4

Spinach (cooked) 90g (2/3 cup) 3.6

Lentils/kidney beans (cooked) 100g 2.5

Tofu 100g 1.9

Almonds 50g 2.1

Sultanas 50g 0.9

Dried apricots 50g 2.0

Source: NUTTAB, Aust. Dept. Of Comm. Serv. And Health

Initially, symptoms of iron deficiency can be tiredness and fatigue.  If iron stores become lower, symptoms include severe fatigue, cramps, headaches and shortness of breath.  

Iron requirements do vary and females need to consume more iron than males in particular age groups.  Plant based eaters also need to pay extra attention to meeting iron needs.  

How much do you need?

Daily Iron Requirements  of mg Iron/day

Males and non-menstruating women 7 mg

Menstruating women 12-16 mg

Growing adolescents 10-13 mg

Pregnancy (Trimester 2 and 3) 22-36 mg

It is not advisable to take iron supplements without first checking your iron status via blood test, as excessive iron intake can be toxic. 

It can be super tricky to get enough iron and your current diet may require some revision to achieve an acceptable iron intake. It may also need some juggling to ensure that the absorption of non-haem iron foods are enhanced but the extra energy and improved performance will be worth it. 

As a small business owner with much to do, working and moving around in life is quite difficult without oxygen don’t you think!

This post was written by Julie Meek, a peak performance coach and founder of Julie Meek.com.au