Iron deficiency is a state or condition where there is a lack or insufficient amount of the micronutrient iron in the human body. It is a matter of great concern when it comes to children and women. In women in their pre-menopausal phase, it is of great concern because of the blood loss during their monthly flow.
Iron is very essential in certain aspects of the body’s metabolism. It is an essential component of haemoglobin and myoglobin found in the red blood cell and responsible for the transfer of oxygen by the same cells.
A deficit in iron leads to a reduction in red blood cell production and population in the blood. This decline in red blood cell population results in iron deficiency anaemia. Also, it plays essential role in the function of some enzymes thus a varied array of symptoms may emerge.
Symptoms may be evident before the condition progresses to iron deficiency anaemia. They may include fatigue, dizziness, pallor, twitches, weakness, irritability, hair loss or thinning and impaired immune function.
Iron deficiency can be attributed to inadequate intake of iron both dietary and supplementary; blood loss through donation, excessive menstrual bleeding, non-menstrual bleeding etc; anti-nutritive factors and certain drugs interfering with iron absorption; and worm infestation just to mention a few.
Iron deficiency can be prevented by iron rich diets and dietary supplements. Food based iron sources can be grouped into haeme and non-haeme. The former is dietary iron that is easily and readily absorbed by the body and can be found in animal source foods like red meat and poultry.
Non-haeme iron on the other hand is not easily absorded due to the form in which the iron is. These can be found in plant source foods like lentils, beans, fortified flour, oil, breakfast cereals, and dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach, bitter leaf, cassava leaf, cocoyam leaf etc
For vegetarians, care must be taken when relying on only plant source foods as sources of iron. Aside the non-haeme nature of the iron present, they also contain certain chemical compounds which further inhibit the absorption of iron by binding to it. These compounds are known are oxalates and phytates.
It is also advised to take such foods in conjunction with vitamin C rich foods since it increases the bioavailability of the non-haeme iron present in their diet.
Article written by Sidney Kojo,BSc food science & nutrition from university of Ghana.