In New Zealand, studies suggest that about 10% of women and 1% of men have iron deficiency, a proportion of whom will show signs of anaemia.
Red blood cells perform the important task of carrying oxygen (attached to a protein called haemoglobin or ‘haem’) around the body. Anaemia can occur as the result of reduced production, or an increased loss, of red blood cells. The body requires three essential elements – iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid – to produce red blood cells. The main causes of iron deficiency anaemia are:
- Blood loss
- Insufficient iron in the diet
- Poor absorption of dietary iron from the digestive tract
Babies are born with sufficient iron supplies to last for approximately six months of feeding with milk (breast or formula) alone. After this time babies need iron rich or fortified foods gradually added to their diets to meet their bodies' iron requirements.
Children and teenagers go through spurts of rapid growth, which require a great deal of iron. A balanced diet with adequate amounts of iron is important at these times.
Iron deficiency anaemia occurs frequently among women of childbearing age. In women who are not pregnant the cause may be due to heavy loss of blood during menstruation. In pregnant women, iron stores have to serve the increased blood volume of the mother, as well as the needs of the growing baby. If sufficient iron intake is not maintained (either in the diet or in the form of iron supplements), the body can become deficient in iron over time, eventually leading to iron deficiency anaemia.
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia become apparent once the body's stores of iron have been depleted. Symptoms tend to appear gradually and may include:
- Paleness of the skin, gums and nail beds
- Reduced ability to fight infections
- An inflamed and sore tongue that has a smooth shiny appearance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Shortness of breath when exercising
- Angina (heart related chest pain).
When iron deficiency is severe changes to the hair and skin, and abnormal growth of the fingernails, may occur. There may also be dryness of the mouth and throat, and inflammation of the tongue. Long-term iron deficiency may cause developmental and learning problems in children.
An assessment of symptoms and blood tests are used to diagnose iron deficiency anaemia. Blood tests will look at the number of red blood cells and haemoglobin level, as well as the iron stores in the body.
When it is suspected that there is blood loss from the digestive tract, tests to detect blood in the bowel motions may be recommended. Diagnostic tests (eg: colonoscopy, gastroscopy) to investigate the digestive tract for the source of any blood loss may be performed.
It is important that the underlying cause of the deficiency is identified, as iron deficiency may be the first symptom of a more serious disorder.
Dietary supplements containing iron in tablet or liquid form and/or a change in diet may recommended. Iron supplements may need to be taken for several months or longer to replenish iron stores.
In people whose iron deficiency is severe, intravenous iron infusions or a transfusion of red blood cells may be required for rapid replacement of iron and haemoglobin.
Other treatment may be recommended depending on the underlying cause of the deficiency. If the underlying reason for iron deficiency is loss of blood from the digestive tract, treatment with medications or surgery may be required.
The risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia can be reduced by having sufficient iron in the diet. There are two main types of dietary iron: haem iron and non-haem iron.
Haem iron is readily absorbed by the body and is found in liver, red meat, chicken and fish.
Non-haem iron is not so easily absorbed and is found in whole grain cereals, vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables), fruits, nuts and legumes. To assist the body to absorb non-haem iron more easily:
- Include a source of vitamin C with a meal
- Consume meat with non-haem iron food
- Avoid tea and coffee at meal times.
The recommended daily dietary intake of iron is:
- Infants 7-11 months: 11mg
- Children 1-8 years: 9-10mg
- Children 9–13 years: 8mg
- Teenage girls 14-18 years: 15mg
- Teenage boys 14-18 years: 11mg
- Women 19–50 years: 18mg
- Pregnant women 14-50 years: 27mg
- Breastfeeding women 14-50 years: 9-10mg
- Women over 50 years: 8mg
- Men over 19 years: 8mg
To put these quantities in perspective, a 250g beef steak may contain around 10mg of iron, a baked potato with skin around 2mg, and a chicken leg between 1 and 2mg. Eating plenty of foods that contain iron is particularly important for children and pregnant or menstruating women.
People who are strict vegetarians (particularly vegans) and people on weight reduction diets or rigorous exercise programmes also need to make sure they are getting a good source of iron in their dietary intake and/or in the form of iron supplements.
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Mayo Clinic (2016). Iron deficiency anaemia (Web Page). Rochester, MN: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/home/ovc-20266507 [Accessed: 20/08/19]
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Last Reviewed - August 2019