Iron deficiency: How to eat yourself healthier

Iron is a mineral that the body needs for growth and development. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

For Koketso Dinoko from the Tlakgameng Village in Ganyesa, North West, period cramps have always been crippling. Little did she know that she was suffering from dysmenorrhea, a pain so severe that she is unable to do any normal activities.

Koketso Dinoko (37) runs a beauty business in Tlakgameng Village in Ganyesa, North West. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

After trying many remedies over many years, the 37-year-old mother of two discovered that she was actually iron deficient – a condition which can be eased with the right food and supplements.

“The body needs iron to function, akere,” she tells Health For Mzansi. “When I am on my period I feel like going somewhere and living there until my [menstruation] cycle is over.”

On her journey, she discovered how to best treat her iron deficiency anaemia. “When a woman is pregnant, she is supposed to take her folic acid [a B vitamin] because it supplements the iron in the body. When you are iron deficient, you experience dizzy spells, that sometimes nausea and also headaches.”  

The reality is that when we it comes to nutrition, most people tend to obsess over good carbs, good fats, and good meats. Very few people keep track of every vitamin and mineral in their diets.

However, according to Centurion-based dietician Jason van Heerden, it is unfortunate that we only realise what we have been lacking when we get sick. Iron deficiency can be very sneaky and robs you of your energy. 

“Anaemia can cause a range of symptoms including fatigue, weakness, dizziness and drowsiness.” 

Registered dietitian Jason Van Heerden

Dinoko is not alone. Experts say women are particularly affected by iron deficiency because they lose iron during pregnancy and also need more of it when they are pregnant or breastfeeding.

What about men?

Delmain Job from Prieska, Northern Cape. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

That doesn’t mean that men can’t be iron deficient. Another Health For Mzansi reader, Delmain Job (30) from Prieska in the Northern Cape, was shocked to be prescribed folic acid when he was diagnosed with anaemia as a student. 

He knew something was wrong when he had sudden dizzy spells and an irregular heartbeat. Men need at least 8 milligrams of iron daily.

“Even when you bleed, your blood is this very light red colour. You will constantly feel tired. Apparently, if you look at my nails you can see these white spots and apparently that is also a symptom,” he explains.

“There was even one point where a doctor put me on folic acid, and explained that I needed to build up the minerals in my body. I was shocked because I thought folic acid was just for pregnant women.”

Job was also advised to change his diet. “My doctor used to tell me that I need to eat lots of peanuts, raisins, lots of green veggies and peanuts. I also take an iron tablet daily.”

Chew on this, Mzansi

According to World Health Organisation research, people in low-income households are more prone to be iron deficient. The condition can be an indicator of both poor nutrition and poor health.

“Iron sources include red meat, chicken, fish and organ meat,” says Van Heerden. He advises people to add more plant-based sources of iron to their diet. In other words, you can literally eat yourself better.

Registered dietitian, Jason van Heerden. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

Good iron sources include:

• fortified cereals (basically porridge with added vitamins and minerals);

• dried fruit;

• beans;

• lentils

• green leafy vegetables (like spinach and broccoli); and

• nuts. 

Don’t forget your folates*, though. And definitely also eat more liver, whole grains, fish, poultry, eggs and milk.

Health For Mzansi word of the day

Folate: So, how is one supposed to “eat” folates? Folate is one of the B-vitamins and is needed to make red and white blood cells in the bone marrow, convert carbohydrates into energy. Good sources of folate include dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peanuts, liver and fresh fruit.

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