Getting more iron

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am

Susan Rai, 14

Susan asks: What foods do you need to eat if you have anaemia?

Wynnie says: Anaemia is commonly caused by a deficiency of iron. With anaemia, the body either doesn't have enough red blood cells or these cells aren't big enough to carry oxygen from the lungs to the body cells. Iron is needed to make haemoglobin, an essential part of the red blood cells.

Without sufficient oxygen, the body cells can't produce enough energy which is why when people are anaemic they feel so tired all the time.

Other symptoms of anaemia include pale skin, headaches, weakness, lack of concentration and irritability. Folate and vitamin B12 is also needed to make healthy red blood cells.

Iron requirements increase during adolescence because of growth, muscle development and, for girls, the start of menstruation. Consumption of bread and/or breakfast cereals which have been fortified with iron can significantly increase intake.

However, many teens don't eat breakfast, so these kinds of foods can be eaten as snacks throughout the day instead.

Some girls have very high requirements for iron and may find it difficult to meet their needs from their diet.

For example, adolescents who start a poorly planned vegetarian or vegan diet, those on diets or girls who have heavy monthly menstrual losses may be more at risk of iron deficiency. They may need to take iron supplements.

The main source of iron in the diet is meat. It's important for vegetarians or vegans to include alternative sources of iron in their diets, such as green vegetables, dried fruit, whole grains and pulses.

Fortified bread and breakfast cereals can be a useful source for vegetarians or vegans.

Iron from plant foods is less well absorbed than iron from animal sources, so it's good practice to include vitamin C-rich foods and drinks with meals, such as fruit juice, fruit and vegetables. Vitamin C helps increase the absorption of iron from plant foods.

Some compounds such as oxalic acid in rhubarb, celery and spinach, phytates/phytic acid in wheat bran and pulses, and tannins in tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption. Eating vitamin C-rich foods and including meat, fish and poultry at mealtimes helps to release more iron from plant foods.

The American Dietetic Association suggests pairing plant and animal foods at meals and snacks. For example, steak with spinach salad, pork and bean soup, chicken with brown rice, strawberries with oatmeal and orange with peanut butter on wholewheat bread.

Susan's diary

Breakfast: Cookies or a sandwich; milk

Lunch: School lunch; water

Snack: Steamed siu mai; Coke

Dinner: Rice, chicken with vegetables, lentil soup; water

Exercise: 1 hour of exercise a week and meditation every night