Iron is an important dietary mineral essential for providing the energy you need for daily life. It is involved in many body functions including transporting oxygen via the blood around the body. Most of the iron in the body is found in haemoglobin, a protein in the blood, and myoglobin, a protein in muscle tissue.

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Yet iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in Australia. High-risk groups include menstruating women, pregnant women, infants and toddlers, teenage girls and female athletes.

It is estimated that one in 12 women of reproductive age and teenage girls in Australia have iron deficiency. Insufficient iron, as we know, can lead to anaemia. Common symptoms can include fatigue, tiredness and breathlessness. Left unchecked, iron deficiency can potentially lead to decreased immune function and therefore poor health.

If you suspect you may be iron deficient it is best to confirm this with blood tests. Have your haemoglobin and ferritin (iron levels) checked before you self- diagnose and change anything in your diet or lifestyle.

In some cases iron supplements may be required but it is not advisable to take them unless advised by your doctor. Too much iron in the body can build up and result in toxicity, which as you can imagine is rather nasty.

Common causes

Inadequate dietary intake is the most common cause of iron deficiency in Australia. Reasons for inadequate intake include poorly balanced vegetarian diets, chronic fad or crash dieting and having limited access to a wide range of fresh foods. Poor absorption is also a common cause of deficiency.

There are two types of dietary iron: haem iron (found in animal foods) and non-haem iron (found in plant foods).

Haem iron is much more readily absorbed than non-haem iron. The body absorbs just under 25 per cent of iron contained in animal foods and only two to eight per cent of iron from plant sources. Vitamin C enhances non-haem iron absorption while dietary calcium, fibre, phytic acid, tannin, oxalic acid and caffeine inhibit non-haem iron absorption.

Women are generally at greater risk of iron deficiency as a result of menstrual losses and consuming less food than men. Some health conditions can also cause a lower than normal ability to absorb or use iron, such as coeliac disease and hypothyroidism.

Iron depletion can occur in athletes because regular exercise increases the body’s need for iron. Regular intense exercise or hard training promotes red blood cell production and it is also thought to increase iron loss through sweat.

Meet your quota

The recommended dietary intake of iron in Australia is 18mg a day for females aged 19 to 50, with an additional 9mg a day required during pregnancy. Iron lost through menstruation means women need twice as much dietary iron as men.

Too much iron

People with an inherited disorder known as haemochromatosis can absorb too much iron. The body doesn’t excrete excess iron and so it is possible for it to build up in body tissues and organs such as the liver and heart.

Excess iron can cause damage to these tissues and organs and increase the risk of disease. People with haemochromatosis need to limit how much iron they consume.