Iron is an important mineral for all living organisms. It is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the human body via the red blood cells. Iron is important due to the multiple essential metabolic processes in which it is involved.
When there is not enough iron in the body, there is an inefficiency of red blood cells which prevents oxygen from being carried to the various cells of the body via the haemoglobin. This results in iron deficiency or anaemia.
Initially, some of the symptoms of anaemia can be mistaken for tiredness. This is probably the reason why most people with anaemia don’t realise that they are anaemic.
Some of the symptoms of anaemia are: fatigue, pallor, breathlessness, palpitations, headache, irritability, low blood pressure, broken nails or loss of appetite.
The risk of iron anaemia is greater in some cases:
▪ Blood loss (women with heavy periods, people with peptic ulcers, hiatus hernia, stomach or colorectal cancer);
▪ Poor iron absorption (e.g. celiac disease, bypass or removal of part of the small intestine);
▪ When there is a greater necessity of iron (pregnant women) or when there is a lack of iron in your diet.
Iron can be found in various foodstuffs of both animal and vegetable origin, but the first one (“heme iron”), which can be found in meat for example, is more easily absorbed than the second type of iron (“non-heme iron”) of vegetable origin.
Vegetarians need to increase the intake of iron-rich food of vegetable origin. The levels of iron intake must equal that of someone who eats meat.
There are some strategies that increase the intake of iron in one’s diet:
▪ Eat meat or fish with every meal (lunch and dinner), and once a week eat food with additional iron content: red meat, pork, seafood, liver (pregnant women should only eat liver once every two weeks), tuna fish, mackerel and sardines
▪ Include pulses in your daily diet, in soup or main dish (beans, chickpeas, peas, broad beans, lentils)
▪ Add dried fruit to your diet (prunes, apricots, raisins) and nuts (almonds, hazelnuts , pistachios)
▪ Add roasted pumpkin or sesame seeds to salads or vegetables
In order to increase the absorption of iron, choose foods that are rich in vitamin C. The absorption of iron is better when food rich in vitamin C is ingested together with iron rich food, especially if there is no addition of an animal protein.
▪ Eat fruit rich in vitamin C for dessert for lunch and dinner (kiwi, orange, strawberries, pineapple, mango, papaya, chestnuts)
▪ As a dressing, use spices, parsley or coriander and add lemon juice
▪ Green-leaved vegetables, which are rich in vitamin C, should be included in your daily diet (watercress, spinach, broccoli, kale and cabbages)
▪ Add tomato to your main dish, or use tomato sauce to some dishes (eg: baked beans) – the acidity of the tomato facilitates iron absorption, preferably when eaten together with a meat or fish dish
▪ As a snack between meals eat nuts rich in vitamin C together with fresh fruit (eg. a handful of almonds with 1 orange).
There are also some types of food that may inhibit iron absorption:
▪ Avoid calcium rich food together with main meals (eg: yoghurt-based sauces, puddings, ice cream, milk or cheese, white sauce, cream). Calcium inhibits iron absorption. Favour dairy products for breakfast or as a snack in-between meals;
▪ Whole-wheat foods should only be taken during breakfast or between meals and not for lunch or dinner (eg: whole-wheat bread); avoid brown rice or pasta. The phytates which can be found in cereals and fibres inhibit iron absorption;
▪ Chocolate may also contain substances that inhibit the absorption of iron. Avoid chocolate mousses, cakes or ice creams as a dessert after an iron-rich meal;
▪ Some substances as well as tannins which are present in coffee, cokes and some teas (black, green, chamomile, linden and mint tea) will also inhibit iron absorption. Avoid these drinks during or immediately after iron-rich meals. Wait at least one hour between meals before the ingestion of this type of drinks.
|| A simple and iron rich lunch
Bean casserole with meat and vegetables
▪ 560g veal in small cubes
▪ 1 cabbage
▪ 4 carrots (sliced)
▪ beans (soaked or tinned – 1 large tin – 840g)
▪ 2 onions (cut in half moons)
Cook the meat and the onions in a small amount of water and salt. Add water if necessary. Add the beans, the carrots and the cabbage. Serve when vegetables are cooked. Use olive oil as a dressing.
|| As a drink with your meal…
Pineapple juice with parsley
and spirulina (a seaweed)
In a blender, liquidise 2 slices of pineapple and a sprig of parsley. Lastly add a teaspoon of spirulina in powder form.
Enjoy your meal!
By Marina Augusto Estevão
Marina Augusto Estevão is a dietician at the Hospital Particular do Algarve Group