Why women need iron

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Monday, 15 April 2013.
Tagged: balanced diet, concentration, energy, health, healthy cooking, healthy eating, pregnancy, supplements, tips, vegetarian, wellness

Why women need iron

Always tired? Dragging yourself around? Always got a sniffle or a cold? Poor concentration? The reason could be that you’re low on iron. Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common nutrition deficiency problem in the world and is a significant health issue for many women today, especially busy women on the go.

Why is iron deficiency more of a problem for women than men?

Women need double the iron intake of men due to monthly blood loss through menstruation and the demands of pregnancy. The recommended day’s intake for women up to the menopause is a hefty 18 milligrams of iron each day; in contrast men need only 8 milligrams. Teen girls aged 14 to 18 years need 15 milligrams. Women drop down to the same 8 milligrams after the menopause as they’re not losing blood each month.

Why are we iron-deficient?

Many women don’t eat enough iron to meet their body’s needs although awareness is growing. The three most common reasons why are:

  1. skipping meals
  2. always being on a diet
  3. not eating meat.

Who’s likely to be iron-deficient?

You could be if you:

  • Have heavy periods each month 
  • Are pregnant 
  • Have recently given birth
  • Are aged 13 to 18 and still growing
  • Eat a vegetarian diet 
  • Train at a high intensity.

What to do?

If you fit any of the above profiles, make sure you get your iron levels tested ie haemoglobin and ferritin, a measure of your long-term stores. If your iron stores are very low, your doctor may prescribe iron supplements. Supplements help immediately but are a short-term solution and can cause constipation and/or upset tummy. So, start with food first and only take iron tablets if you have to.

Sources of iron

 Red meat is the best source of iron and its iron is well-absorbed by the body, mostly  being in a form called haem iron. Red meat has twice as much of this bio-available iron as chicken and three times as much as fish. See my post on iron for more detail.

You don’t need to consume huge slabs of steak to get enough iron – in fact most women don't like those over-sized steakhouse sirloins or huge roast dinners. You only need a little red meat as long as you’re clever about how you combine it with the accompanying vegetables and grains to maximize the absorption of iron.

For instance, just a few strips of beef in a vegetable stir-fry (say 50 grams per person) will improve the iron you take up from the vegetables. Something in meat known simply as the ‘meat factor’ works its magic on the non-haem iron in spinach, beans and brown rice so you get more.

 If I don't eat meat, how can I get the iron I need?

Vegetarians can obtain iron with the help of vitamin C, one of the 'enhancers' of iron uptake. Vitamin C (chemically ascorbic acid) reacts with non-haem iron, making it an 'easier' molecule for absorption. Try these 6 ways to boost your iron intake without meat or chicken:

Squeezing lemon1. Add a glass of orange juice, grapefruit juice, tomato juice or V8 juice (all rich in vitamin C) to your main meals. If you prefer something less sweet and less calorific, drink a glass of water with a good squeeze of lemon juice in it.

2. Include vegetables that are rich in vitamin C such as spinach, silverbeet (chard), kale, cabbage, capsicum, tomato, fresh herbs, snow peas or broccoli. Steam or microwave to retain the maximum vitamin C. Cook lightly until still crunchy. Don't overcook.

3. Add a side salad with high C ingredients eg dark-green salad leaves like baby spinach or rocket (arugula), tomatoes as in a Greek salad, capsicum, cabbage as in a Coleslaw, plus lots of fresh chopped herbs.

4. Use lemons and lemon juice liberally in your cooking and over food. I like to use lemon juice as a marinade and make up a lemony salad dressing with lemon juice, olive oil, freshly ground pepper and mustard.

5. Make up yummy salads using grapefruit or orange segments - I have a great recipe using pink grapefruit, sliced fennel, red onion and wild rocket leaves. Or try lentils, orange segments, green onions and almonds with a dressing using orange juice and orange zest in place of lemon juice.

6. If none of the above appeal, take a vitamin C supplement e.g. 50 or 100mg at the same time as your meals.

The bottom line

My blood iron has always been borderline low so I like to include a small portion of meat or chicken or fish  in one meal a day. I don’t enjoy a huge slab of meat, but want enough to lift the flavour of what I'm cooking eg vegetable and lamb slow-cooked dinner. If I eat a meatless meal, I make sure  there are vegetables high in vitamin C there or I use a lot of lemon juice (love lemons and that's another post!).

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.