World Iron Awareness Week took place from 26 August to 1 September this year. The campaign shone a spotlight on an issue that affects many Kiwis but this year focused on the epidemic young women in particular are facing — whether they be meat eaters or non-meat eaters — in relation to iron deficiency, writes Kit Arkwright.
One billion people globally are estimated by the World Health Organisation to be suffering from iron deficiency related anaemia. Although iron deficiency anaemia occurs at all ages and involves both the sexes, adolescent girls are more prone to it.
The highest prevalence of global iron deficiency anaemia is between the ages of 12 and 15 years when requirements are at peak. In some countries, up to 50 percent of adolescent girls have been reported to be anaemic.
Here in Aotearoa, the statistics don’t look much better. Based on the most recent national nutrition survey from 2009, one in fourteen women are iron deficient and, worryingly, a third of teenage girls do not achieve their daily iron requirements, with more research needed to understand the current situation.
What has this meant for our already under pressure district health boards? Hospital admissions — primarily due to iron deficiency anaemia — has crept up from an annual $3.2 million to $6.7m over the past 10 years, according to Ministry of Health figures. Over the past three years, the Ministry has spent a staggering $20 million on treating iron deficiency.
During World Iron Awareness Week, Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ Inc) conducted a quiz, receiving over 5,000 responses, pointed to worrying trends that many Kiwis are suffering from the symptoms often attributed to iron deficiency. One of the most alarming statistics was over one in five of all respondents stated they felt ‘weak or dizzy all of the time’.
Dr Claire Badenhorst, a lecturer at Massey University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition, specialises in the field of exercise physiology, investigating the impact of iron deficiency. She says it was clear these results, albeit anecdotal, support the wider scientific evidence that iron deficiency is far more prevalent than people realise.
“The results from the quiz are showing similar trends to what I am seeing in my research. A recent study of mine and colleagues displayed some interesting results. Out of 170 women involved in the study, up to half of the women presented with low iron levels. I suffer from low iron levels myself and know how difficult it can be. Feeling weak and dizzy, almost as if your body is suffocating is a very real consequence, but thankfully there are ways you can manage it.”
The symptoms of iron deficiency, things like a lack of energy, regular headaches, shortness of breath or always suffering from colds and flus can often be put down to a busy life. Pale skin and gums are also a clear indicator iron levels may be low, and close to one in three respondents stated they had pale gums and skin.
Fiona Windle, head of nutrition at B+LNZ, was clear in her advice to Kiwis: “Individually, the cause of these symptoms could be wide ranging. However, the fact we saw close to 15 percent of respondents select all eight of the quiz responses most closely aligned with iron deficiency symptoms shows a strong indication that they may be suffering from low iron.
The quiz, which was hosted on recipes.co.nz, was designed to give respondents a guide to whether they may be suffering from low iron along with tips and advice on how to boost and maintain their iron levels. For more information about World Iron Awareness Week or tips to help boost and maintain iron levels, please head to ironweek.co.nz.
-  Murray CJL, Salomon JA, Mathers CD, Lopez AD. The global burden of disease. Geneva: World Health Organization. (2002).
-  Prevention of Iron Deficiency Anaemia in Adolescents. Role of Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation. World Health Organisation. (2011).
-  University of Otago and Ministry of Health. (2011). A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
-  Stuff.co.nz More spent on low iron hospitalisations as meat intake 1st January 2019 declines https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/108767316/more-spent-on-low-iron-hospitalisations-as-meat-intake-declines
Kit Arkwright is marketing manager for Beef + Lamb NZ Inc, the red meat sector’s domestic promotion body based in Auckland. This Guest Post has been provided by B+LNZ, as part of its MeatExportNZ supporter package.