Did you know that iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world? It’s more likely to affect young women, with one in four Australian females not getting enough through their diet. But why is iron so important in the first place? And how do you know if you’re not getting enough?

What is iron and why do we need it?

Iron is a mineral that has many essential roles in the body. It’s main job is to carry oxygen around through your bloodstream, but it is also a component of many different enzymes and it’s important for keeping your immune system fighting fit, too.

There are two types of iron: haem and non-haem.

Here’s the difference:

Haem iron comes from animal sources and is easily absorbed. Foods like livers and kidneys are exceptionally rich in haem iron, and red meat is another good choice. Poultry and fish contain some haem iron as well.

Non-haem iron comes from non-animal sources and is much harder for the body to absorb (though a little Vitamin C can help – more on that later). Some grain foods, like breakfast cereals and bread, contain non-haem iron as they have iron added to them during manufacturing (so surprisingly, they can account for a substantial proportion of your iron intake).

Naturally occurring sources of non-haem iron include wholegrains (like rolled oats or quinoa thanks to their nutrient-rich core), eggs, legumes (beans, lentils and chickpeas), some leafy green veggies, nuts and seeds. Some dried fruits can contribute a dose of energising iron as well.

Between the ages of 19 to 50, women require 18 milligrams of iron a day (FYI, that’s more than double what men need!). If you’re pregnant, you need even more, though once menstruation ends, your requirements drop down to 8 milligrams per day (i.e. the same as men).

Signs you’re not getting enough iron

So, what happens if you’re not getting enough iron?

Some common signs to look out for: you could feel tired, have dizzy spells, experience breathlessness or look very pale.

You could also feel as though you’ve got less capacity to do physical work. In severe cases, iron deficiency can impair cognition, affect your immune system and even affect pregnancy.

What affects absorption?

There’s a range of factors that can either promote or hinder iron absorption. As previously mentioned, Vitamin C can boost non-haem iron absorption, so simple tricks like pairing chickpeas with lemon juice or eggs with tomatoes can really help. Also, pairing haem iron with non-haem iron will help to increase absorption, too.

On the flip side, tea and coffee (and even wine!) can reduce iron absorption, so it pays to consume iron-rich foods at a different time to your beloved cuppa.

So what can you do about it?

As you can tell – it’s pretty serious stuff!

The good news is that simple dietary tweaks can really boost your iron intake. If you’re deficient, your doctor may recommend an iron supplement. In that case, you should always follow their advice and guidance – because having too much iron, especially from supplements, can be just as dangerous.

Melissa Meier is an online and Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can connect with her at www.honestnutrition.com.au or on Instagram @honest_nutrition.