ron deficiency is prevalent in a staggering one-third of the world’s population. Yet, it remains an under-recognized and under-estimated condition with potentially serious consequences. Iron Deficiency Day is commemorated on November 26th to raise awareness about the serious health consequences posed by iron deficiency. Although it can affect any age group, its prevalence is the highest among pre-menopausal women and children below 5 years. Heavy menstrual bleeding due to PCOD or endometriosis and blood loss during child-birth are among the leading causes of iron deficiency anemia.
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Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include generalized fatigue, tiredness, shortness of breath, brittle nails, hair fall, restless leg syndrome, frequent headaches, depression, dizziness, increased sensitivity to cold, pale skin, fast/ irregular heartbeat, swollen tongue, poor concentration, strange craving to eat non-food items like dirt, paints, paper, clay, chalk etc referred to as ‘pica’.
The best sources of iron include:
- Animal foods like red meat, poultry, turkey, liver, fish, eggs
- Green leafy veggies like spinach, beet greens, kale
- Other veggies like broccoli, beetroot, mushrooms,
- Lentils, beans, whole grains
- Nuts especially pistachios, cashews & almonds and seeds like pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, flax etc.
- Soyabean and its derivatives like soymilk, tofu
- Fruits like pomegranate, berries, dates, dried fruits like dried apricots, prunes, raisins etc.
However, not all iron is absorbed equally. The iron present in animal foods, also called heme iron has a comparatively higher absorption rate of around 20-25 percent. The iron obtained from plant foods, also called non-heme iron has a poor absorption rate of around 7-8 percent.
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Other than the source of iron, there are various other factors that alter iron absorption. These include:
- Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron from our meals. Foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits (orange, mausambi, kinnow, malta, lemon), amla, guava, berries and tomatoes must be included in the diet as they aid iron absorption.
- Caffeine interferes with absorption of iron from our food. Caffeine containing items like tea, coffee, alcohol, chocolates shouldn’t be consumed to main meals for the same reason.
- Some food items have certain anti-nutrients like phytic acid which inhibit iron absorption. It reduces iron absorption by upto 80 percent. High phytate foods include whole grains including bran, brown rice, rye, sorghum etc. Soaking, sprouting, fermenting and proper cooking can effectively reduce the amount of phytates. Vitamin C too can counter the effect of phytates.
Other nutrients required alongside iron for production of red blood cells include folic acid and vitamin B 12. If iron levels are particularly low, diet alone may not suffice and iron supplements may be necessary.
It is also important to ascertain the cause of iron deficiency. Besides poor intake, pregnancy and menstrual losses, other causes include internal bleeding or inability to absorb iron due to intestinal disorders like celiac disease or intestinal surgery. Iron rich diet along with supplements can help restore the iron levels.