What is the outlook?
Iron deficiency should resolve with treatment. If iron supplements are required, it is usually recommended that they should be taken for three months.
Iron deficiency will come back if the cause has not been dealt with.
How can I prevent iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency may be difficult to prevent if it is due to disease - for example, bleeding from the bowels. However, it should be possible to prevent iron deficiency that is due solely to not having enough iron in your diet. See the section above on iron-containing foods.
With increasing evidence that we need to limit our intake of meat, particularly red meat, how much iron do we need in our diet? The UK recommended daily intake for an adult man is 8.7 mg. For a woman who has not reached her menopause, this is increased to 14.8 mg. Higher amounts are needed in pregnancy and in children and young people.
Can I do anything to help my body to absorb the iron in my diet?
Vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid) helps the body to absorb non-haem iron from the gut. Vitamin C is found in high amounts in lemons, limes, tomatoes and red peppers - it is partially destroyed by cooking, so these foods will help more if you eat (or drink) them raw with your meal.
Lactic acid fermented vegetables may also aid the absorption of non-haem iron. Sauerkraut and kimchi are examples of lacto-fermented vegetables.
Calcium, which is present in milk, yoghurt and cheese, interferes with the absorption of both haem iron and non-haem iron. So drinking cow's milk is best avoided during mealtimes. However, research has suggested that lactobacillus, such as is used in the production of live yoghurt, may aid in the absorption of non-haem iron.
Tea and coffee are best avoided at mealtimes too. This is because they contain chemicals called phenols which interfere with the absorption of non-haem iron.
Further reading and references
Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition Iron and Health Report; Public Health England, February 2011
Micronutrient Deficiencies, Iron Deficiency Anaemia; World Health Organization
Iron Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet; Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
Wheal MS, DeCourcy-Ireland E, Bogard JR, et al; Measurement of haem and total iron in fish, shrimp and prawn using ICP-MS: Implications for dietary iron intake calculations. Food Chem. 2016 Jun 15201:222-9. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.01.080. Epub 2016 Jan 21.
Jackson J, Williams R, McEvoy M, et al; Is Higher Consumption of Animal Flesh Foods Associated with Better Iron Status among Adults in Developed Countries? A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2016 Feb 168(2):89. doi: 10.3390/nu8020089.
Pereira DI, Bruggraber SF, Faria N, et al; Nanoparticulate iron(III) oxo-hydroxide delivers safe iron that is well absorbed and utilised in humans. Nanomedicine. 2014 Nov10(8):1877-86. doi: 10.1016/j.nano.2014.06.012. Epub 2014 Jun 28.
Hoppe M, Onning G, Berggren A, et al; Probiotic strain Lactobacillus plantarum 299v increases iron absorption from an iron-supplemented fruit drink: a double-isotope cross-over single-blind study in women of reproductive age. Br J Nutr. 2015 Oct 28114(8):1195-202. doi: 10.1017/S000711451500241X.
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