Iron is a mineral that plays an essential role in oxygen transport and energy metabolism. So it follows that if iron levels are low, we can feel tired, lethargic and unmotivated.
If iron deficiency continues and we deplete our stores, the condition can progress to anaemia. According to the World Health Organisation, two billion people are anaemic – many due to iron deficiency – making iron deficiency the world’s most common nutritional disorder .
Anaemia affects our immune response so that we are more susceptible to colds and infections. It also affects behaviour and negatively impacts mental and physical work performance.
Absenteeism and decreased productivity caused by iron-deficiency anaemia has economic consequences for employees and employers. A study in male rubber workers showed that the productivity of anaemic workers was 20% lower than that of non-anaemic workers, and this could be resolved with iron supplementation . Correcting iron deficiency can mean healthier staff who are more attentive, energetic and productive, and less susceptible to disease.
A dietary assessment can tell you whether your usual diet is providing you with your recommended daily intake of iron. For men and postmenopausal women this is 8mg per day, and for premenopausal women it is 18mg per day. Needs increase to 27mg during pregnancy, however intestinal absorption also increases so a diet that provides 12–16mg iron per day is adequate for most women.
If you suspect you have an iron deficiency, ask your doctor for a blood test. If your iron levels are low, your doctor will pinpoint and treat the underlying cause. Possible causes include low dietary intake, malabsorption issues, blood loss, conditions that cause internal bleeding and excessive exercise. Don’t be tempted to self-diagnose because the symptoms of iron overload are the same as iron deficiency, and taking supplements could cause organ damage. Supplements should only be taken under medical supervision so that your levels can be closely monitored.
9 ways to help you achieve your recommended daily intake of iron
1. Get some haem iron
Haem iron is found in red meat, poultry and fish, and is better absorbed than non-haem iron. Foods derived from animal flesh also contain a peptide that enhances non-haem iron absorption.
While red meat is considered to be the best source of iron, mollusks like octopus, oysters, mussels and clams contain more iron than beef. Clams are a particularly excellent source, with nine times more iron than eye fillet steak.
2. Consume at least one vitamin C-rich food with every meal
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron so try to include foods high in vitamin C at every meal. Vegetables high in vitamin C include capsicum, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes and spinach. Fruits that are high in vitamin C are citrus fruits, strawberries, pineapple, papaya, kiwi fruit and cantaloupe.
3. Make sure your grains are whole
Make an effort to stop eating refined grains in foods such as white bread, white rice and white pasta and go for the wholegrain options that retain helpful amounts iron. Good choices are freekeh, quinoa, barley and bulgur.
4. Look out for iron-fortified products
There are quite a few available at the supermarket, such as soy drinks, breads, cereals and juices.
5. Enjoy beans and legumes, tofu and eggs
Although beans and legumes contain phytates and vegetable proteins that inhibit iron absorption, chickpeas, soybeans, lentils, pinto beans, navy beans and kidney beans are still good sources of iron.
6. Eat your greens
Leafy greens such as spinach, kale and silverbeet are some of the most nutrient-dense foods available and we should try to include them in our diet most days. Stir-fry on a low heat with a small amount of olive oil to boost iron availability.
7. Snack on homemade trail mix
Add pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dried apricots, prunes and sultanas to your nuts for an iron-rich snack.
8. Add flavour (and iron) with herbs and spices
Parsley, cumin and turmeric are excellent sources of iron. Oregano, basil, thyme and black pepper are also good sources.
9. Drink your tea or coffee between meals
Tannic acid and other polyphenols can inhibit iron absorption so try to drink tea and coffee between meals rather than with your meals.
 World Health Organisation, http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/
 Basta SS, Soekirman DSc, Darwin Karyadi MS and Scrimshaw NS. Iron deficiency anemia and the productivity of adult males in Indonesia. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 32: 916-925, 1979.