Iron Deficiency: Modern Day Epidemic

Low iron and iron deficiency anemia

It is well known that iron is essential for the proper functioning of the human body; as a major component of hemoglobin, which is responsible for transport and delivery of oxygen to cells, and for energy production not to mention immune function. Iron is one of several trace elements that are required in relatively minute amounts (100 mg or less per day). Although only needed in small amounts, the trace elements; including iron, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, iodine, chromium, and fluoride all serve critical roles in maintaining body structures and regulating body systems.

While many of the trace elements are difficult to study due to the small requirements in the body, others can be difficult to study because, as in the case of selenium, different soil content can adversely effect how much selenium ends up in the food grown/produced.  Iron is probably the most studied of all the trace elements, nevertheless iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide.  This is important in that one of the most common health complaints is fatigue. Being tired can of course be attributed to a wide range of issues such as inadequate sleep, overwork, stress, improper diet, excessive caffeine use, illness, and lack of exercise to name but a few. Nutritional deficiencies are also key players in fatigue. Without enough iron, the body is put under stress as it is unable to supply cells with oxygen. In part, iron deficiency might be so prevalent because its earliest stages rarely presents with symptoms. In fact, by the time the effects of low iron are discernable, the condition is beyond a mere iron deficiency but rather in the later stages of iron deficiency.

“Iron deficiency anemia is the final stage of iron deficiency. Inadequate iron first causes a decrease in the amount of stored iron, followed by low iron levels in the plasma. It is only after levels drop that there is no longer enough iron available to maintain adequate hemoglobin in red blood cells.” (Smolin, L., Grosvenor, M., Gurfinkel, D. “Nutrition: Science and Applications.” 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd., 2015. Ch. 12 The Trace Elements, pp. 486.

Feeling weak, generally fatigued, experiencing mood swings, or having trouble concentrating? These are just some of the symptoms associated with iron deficiency anemia. Severe forms can present with more worrisome symptoms like tingling in the extremities, dizzy spells, fainting, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, and even heart palpitations. While iron deficiency is less common in men, for women in their childbearing years the risks are quite high due to monthly blood losses. If you find yourself dragging yourself out of bed every morning, and just going through the motions of the day, consider getting your blood work done to determine whether or not your iron stores are compromised.

Iron in the diet

To increase iron in the diet it is recommended to consume red meat, organ meats (especially liver and kidneys), leafy greens, lentils and beans, dried fruit, blackstrap molasses, and iron fortified whole grains. Although iron from animal sources (heme iron) is easily absorbed and assimilated in the body, iron is also present in many plant based foods (known as nonheme iron). Whereas heme or animal sourced iron are easily digested and absorbed by the body, nonheme iron is not as readily absorbed and is also easily affected by other dietary factors. Vitamin C increases nonheme iron absorption by as much as six times as much as nonheme iron consumed without vitamin C. Another way to increase nonheme iron absorption is to add a small amount of heme iron to the same meal (think bean chili with a tiny amount of beef). Just as certain foods increase absorption, certain factors will seriously reduce absorption; tannins in tea, calcium, coffee consumption, phytates in some cereal grains, and even oxalates in some greens. Another idea to consider is that stress can reduce one’s overall ability to absorb and assimilate a number of minerals and vitamins, and even increase one’s need for specific nutrients.

The final word

It’s never a bad idea to have your bloodwork done if you feel over-run or are experiencing more than usual fatigue. Minor tweaks to your daily diet can have a major impact on your overall health and well-being.  Dieticians of Canada has a great chart complete with animal and plant sources of iron to help you make smart food choices in adding iron to your diet, available online at:



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