28th August 2023

Feeling sluggish? It could be your iron levels

Carrie Ruxton, board member, Quality Meat Scotland.

If you're yawning through meetings, getting brain fog or feeling out of breath as you go up the stairs, then you may need to take note of Iron Awareness week (from 28th August).

Organised each year, this week of iron-related facts and stats highlights one of the world's most common nutrient deficiencies affecting a third of the population, especially women and children.

Iron is famous for giving colour to red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, but it also has other vital roles. One of these is making sure our immune system works correctly. Studies show that people with low iron levels in the blood are more likely to pick up infections and take longer to recover.

Iron also supports cognitive function and helps release energy from the foods we eat. That's why iron deficiency can make us feel tired, sluggish and unable to concentrate.

Scottish studies [1] show that low iron intake affects one in ten preschool children, a quarter of women and more than half of teenage girls. The figure for girls is the most shocking because this age group has the highest iron requirement to support normal growth and the onset of periods.

In Scotland, women and girls are only getting 70% of the iron they need from their diet, putting them at increased risk of iron deficiency. This is due to a number of causes including skipping breakfast, dieting and giving up red meat.

Red meat intakes amongst UK women [2] have slumped by a quarter over the last decade to just 44g a day, far less than the guideline of up to 70g. Over the same period, iron intakes have declined – which is probably not a coincidence.

To get the most iron from meat, also known as haem iron, beef is the best source to go for. And of course, Irn Bru doesn't count. Even spinach, beloved of Popeye, doesn't make the grade as absorption of iron from vegetable sources is only a third compared with red meat [3].

Interestingly, plant sources of iron – like beans, pulses and green vegetables – are absorbed better when accompanied by a serving of red meat. Another good reason to cook up a steaming bowl of chilli con carne or a pork stir fry.

So, if you're worried about your iron levels or want to make sure your kids are getting enough to support their brains and bodies at school, check out my tips:

  1. Enjoy up to 500g of cooked red meat per week – such as Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb, or Specially Selected Pork. Each serving should be about the size of a deck of cards per person for cooked weight.
  2. Double up on dark green veggies with main meals including spinach, kale, cabbage and broccoli.
  3. Beans means iron – try adding a handful of red kidney beans, chickpeas or baked beans to stews or soups.
  4. Drink a glass of fruit juice with your evening meal. Vitamin C boosts iron absorption.
  5. Wake up to a fortified breakfast cereal like bran flakes or wheat biscuits.

For some deliciously, healthy red meat recipes, visit makeitscotch.com

[1] https://www.foodstandards.gov.scot/downloads/NDNS_Y1-4_Scotland_report_FULL_TEXT_MASTER_DOC_FINAL_FOR_REPUBLICATION__JUNE_2017.pdf

[2] NDNS: results from years 9 to 11 (2016 to 2017 and 2018 to 2019) - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[3] SACN Iron and Health Report - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

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