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Iron

An indispensable part of a woman's diet

By Stéphanie Ménard, Dt.P nutritionniste

Many women are at risk of irondeficiency anaemia. According to Statistics Canada's Health Measure Survey (2009-2011), the overall rate of anaemia is low across the country but nine percent of women between the ages of 20 and 49 and 13 percent of 12 to 19 year olds still had insufficient levels of iron. Menstrual flows, periods of growth (puberty, pregnancy) and a lack of iron in the diet are the main contributors.

Iron deficiencies are usually defined in three stages of severity: an asymptomatic lack of reserves; minor deficiency producing no anaemia; and finally, outright anaemia, the principle symptoms of which are fatigue, a pale complexion, and shortness of breath.

Why Iron?

The body needs oxygen to produce energy. In order to reach the muscles where energy is used, oxygen needs a carrier. This carrier comes in the form of hemoglobin, found in red blood cells. In each molecule of haemoglobin we find iron, to which oxygen attaches itself for transport. Iron is therefore an essential component of the energetic metabolism of the human organism.

Iron in the diet

Foods can contain two types of dietary iron: "heme" and "nonheme". Heme iron is easier to absorb and is found in meats, poultry and fish. Nonheme iron, on the other hand, is found in vegetables, whole-grain products and legumes, as well as dried fruits and nuts. It is harder to absorb the iron present in these foods due to their fibre and phytate content. Coffee and tea also diminish one's capacity for iron absorption. However, it is possible to facilitate the absorption of nonheme iron:

  • add a source of vitamin C to each meal
  • include an amount of meat, fish or poultry in each meal
  • avoid coffee or tea during a meal

Tips to Increase Iron

To stay healthy, it is important to include good sources of iron in your everyday meals. The human body cannot chemically produce iron. We must therefore get our iron through a balanced diet.

  • Choose at least one food rich in iron as well as one rich in vitamin C for each meal (citrus fruits, strawberries, cabbage, broccoli, kiwis, peppers, tomatoes, etc.)
  • Add beans, peas or lentils to your soups and dishes
  • For breakfast, opt for whole-grain cereals or iron-enriched oatmeal and have them with a glass of orange juice.
  • Favour fruits and vegetables that are dark green, orange and red.
  • Opt for tomato sauces instead of creamy ones.
  • Snack on dried fruits, or add them to your breakfast cereals, muffins and biscuits.
  • Use molasses instead of sugar for your pancake, muffin and biscuit recipes.
  • Consult the nutritional value charts of products to choose the ones highest in iron.
  • Drink your coffee or tea at least 30 minutes after having finished your meal.

Iron-deficiency anaemia is usually corrected through adjustments to one's diet. Taking an iron supplement should always be supervised by your doctor, as there is a possible risk of overdose.

Nutrition Expert
Stéphanie Ménard has been a member of the Professional Order of Quebec Dietitians since 1990. She has worked in such fields as education, health care, sports and extended care.

Summer 2013, Vol 5 N°3

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