By Carol Harrison, RD
Iron is vital for women’s health, yet it’s rarely top of mind. Many of the women in your fitness class are likely unaware of the vital role that iron plays in optimizing health. Beyond the basics about iron, which I’ve written about before, here are the top three things to know about iron and women’s health.
There is no test to provide an early warning about low iron.
Iron is needed to carry oxygen to all parts of our bodies, including our muscles and brains. If iron is in short supply, our bodies will deprive our tissues of iron to ensure that there is enough of it in our blood. This means that by the time a blood test indicates low iron, we have long overshot the point of insufficient iron for optimal health.
Food for thought: The importance of iron can get lost in the buzz about plant-based eating. Beef is one of the richest non-fortified food sources of well-absorbed iron. Advice to cut back further from what Canadians currently eat (two servings of fresh beef per week, on average) could make it challenging for some women to get sufficient iron. Some plant foods provide iron (and many other important nutrients including fibre), but the type they contain is less well absorbed.
Think optimal iron, not just preventing deficiency.
Your clients may complain of low energy, irritability, headaches or brain fog. They might ask you how they can eat for energy. One possible solution is to ensure they’re meeting their iron needs. Given that there is no good early warning test for low iron, the best advice is to be mindful of the importance of iron and to eat iron-rich foods daily to optimize your iron levels prior to detection of deficiency. Optimization is the key.
Food for thought: Women are often the primary caregivers of young and old alike. When stretched to the limit, self-care – like eating well – often gets pushed aside. Adopting some basic good eating habits like getting enough iron can boost well-being, energy, and resilience.
Iron matters well before women even think of conceiving.
Women need to think about iron pre-pregnancy; if their iron stores are low, it can be hard to play catch-up and meet additional iron demands during pregnancy. That’s because it can take several months to correct low iron stores.
What many women may not realize is that insufficient iron can contribute to low birth weight and premature birth, and it can interfere with a baby’s optimal growth – even brain health – during fetal development and long after birth. Eating iron-rich foods daily starting well before pregnancy is ideal. Health-care providers may also recommend a supplement.
Food for thought: Up to 18% of Canadian women (14–50 years of age) do not meet their iron needs. Given that female athletes may need up to 70% more iron than recommended, and iron needs are almost doubled for those who do not eat meat, it’s likely that the prevalence of low iron has been significantly underestimated.
About Carol Harrison