Iron - are you getting enough?

The facts on the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and what to do about it.
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  • Updated:1 Nov 2005

04.Do you need a supplement?

Diet before pills

You can improve your iron intake with a better diet. Don’t take an iron supplement ‘just in case’ — you may be wasting your money and there’s a remote chance you may be seriously overloading your body.

Blood test

If you feel tired and run down, talk to your doctor first to see if there may be another problem. A simple blood test will establish whether you’re iron-deficient. If you are, your doctor will discuss with you how to treat the deficiency. Ideally you should change your diet and eat more iron-rich foods, but if this is not feasible or not enough, a supplement may be recommended.

While food is the best way to get iron, some people, particularly pregnant women, may require an iron supplement to replenish and maintain their stores.

Iron boosting tips

  • Red meat, fish or poultry Include these as a regular part of your diet (unless you’re a vegetarian).
  • Citrus. Have a piece of citrus fruit or glass of juice with your breakfast cereal
  • Breakfast cereal. Choose an iron-fortified one and don’t add unprocessed bran — it’ll inhibit absorption of iron.
  • Dieting. If you’re on a slimming diet, be particularly careful to include enough iron-rich foods.
  • Tea and coffee. Limit drinks between meals.
  • Vegetables. Choose tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin and cabbage, as the non-haem iron in them is comparatively easily absorbed.
  • Choose more iron-rich foods if you donate blood or — for women — have heavy periods.
  • Supplements. If you have to take supplements of other minerals, such as calcium or zinc, don’t take them with meals.

Too much iron?

Most people are unlikely to get too much iron from food.

Iron storage disease

About 1 in 300 Australians has Haemachromatosis, a genetic abnormality which can cause excessive iron absorption and storage in the body.

This can damage the liver, pancreas and heart over time. As iron slowly accumulates, insidious signs and symptoms can suggest many other complaints, such as the early onset of arthritis or stomach complaints.

Symptoms: The most persistent symptoms are tiredness, fatigue, not feeling well for a prolonged period of time, abdominal discomfort, swollen liver, joint pains, slate grey appearance or bronze complexion, loss of sex drive. You should see your GP if you've noticed these symptoms.

Some evidence has been found to suggest that high levels of stored iron in the body may increase the risk of heart disease and cancer. However, most research doesn’t support this link and scientists believe there is no reason to cut back on dietary iron intake.

Warning: For a toddler, only a handful of iron pills can be poisonous, so if you have small children, keep any vitamin and mineral supplements in their original, closed container, out of children’s reach and sight, preferably in a locked cabinet.


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