The most common nutritional deficiency that affects women

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in Australia with approximately 23 per cent of Australian women not meeting their iron intake requirements. 

The prevalence of inadequate intakes was highest amongst females aged 14 to 50 years, with nearly two in five having inadequate iron intakes (40 per cent of 14 to 18 year old females and 38 per cent of 19 to 50 year-old females). These groups also have higher requirements for iron (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Health Survey, Nutrient Intake 2011 to 12).

Maintaining adequate iron levels is challenging for women aged 14 to 50, especially for those with restrictive diets, so sports dietitan Peta Carige reveals how we can make a change.

Why is low iron an issue for women?

"Low iron in women is multifactorial, but I think a lot of active (not even elite) women that I see in private practice purely under-estimate their iron requirements and also are of the belief that white meat is healthier for them, which isn't the case," Peta says. "As long as you eat red meat with the fat trimmed it is a power house of nutrients for women."

Peta adds that with women typically doing more resistance training and being generally busier, she thinks our iron consumption also needs to increase. "We also, unlike men, lose iron through our menstrual cycle every month so we need to replace our stores more frequently," she says.

How can we combat low iron?

"The recommendation to have three to four red meat meals a week as it is a good source of iron, that's well absorbed by the body, but I don’t think this message is getting out to women," Peta says. "If women are not eating enough red meat, then they need to be really conscious of pairing good plant food sources of iron with foods that contain vitamin C because this will improve the absorption of iron."

Peta also suggests that you need to listen to your body closely. "Women need to trust how they feel and if they are feeling 'off' or fatigued go get a blood test and seek professional help to optimise your diet," she says.

Diets and iron

While Peta says eating an entirely plant-based diet can be beneficial for your health and meet all nutritional needs, it does take diligence around what food combinations you eat. 

"Also, the volume of food you need to eat increases, which isn't always feasible especially for those that are time-poor and have small breaks between training sessions," she says. "It also puts people at higher risk of being deficient in certain nutrients that impact performance very quickly such as iron, iodine and B12."

Instead of following the latest trends, Peta suggests you need to take a look at what eating plan will suit your personal goals, food preferences and most importantly your lifestyle. "If it isn't sustainable then it isn't the right diet for you," Peta says. 

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