Spend errryday feeling like the energy has been sucked out of you? Low iron levels could be to blame. Research by Medibank Better Health Index last year found that one million Aussies are iron-deficient or anaemic, with women aged 18-30 being the worst affected. Eek! Lady stuff like periods, pregnancy and menopause can increase our need for the mineral – so here’s everything you need to know about scoring the right levels.

So, what does iron do exactly?

“Iron is a mineral that is found in every cell in the body and has many roles,” explains WF’s resident dietitian Caitlin Reid. “Iron, as part of the protein haemoglobin, helps carry oxygen from our lungs throughout the body. The oxygen is then used to burn carbohydrates and fats, releasing the energy stored inside. Iron also helps our muscles store and use oxygen, ensures optimal energy levels, peak brain function and a strong immune system.” And if your iron levels are low? That zapped energy we mentioned earlier is a negative effect. “When we don’t get enough iron, many processes in the body are affected. Inadequate iron may result in a lack of focus, increased irritability, reduced stamina and fatigue,” says Caitlin.

Get it into you

There are two different types of iron – haem and non-haem iron. “Haem iron is found in animal foods such as red meat, poultry and fish, while non-haem iron comes from a variety of plant-based foods like legumes, wholegrains, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and fresh and dried fruit,” says Caitlin. “Non-haem iron is less available than haem iron, meaning we don’t absorb as much because plant foods contain substances like phytates that inhibit absorption of iron in the body.” Her suggestion? Eat 3-4 serves of lean red meat each week to help maximise your iron intake.

What about non-meat eaters?

Vitamin C, says Caitlin, can enhance iron absorption from non-haem iron food sources. “For instance, eating hummus which contains chickpeas (non-haem iron) and lemon juice (rich in vitamin C) or putting strawberries or papaya (rich in vitamin C) on your muesli can help to boost iron absorption in the body.”
Another option is soaking and sprouting plant foods like legumes, whole grains and seeds to make iron more available.

If you still aren’t meeting your daily requirements by food alone, you may need iron supplementation. Visit your GP for a proper diagnosis and his/her recommendation.