British population falling short of daily iron needs

LACK OF iron in the diet is a key health problem in the UK. Commenting on this latest health news from, independent dietitian, Dr Carrie Ruxton a member of the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), notes: “First of all it is vital to note that iron is essential for the formation of haemoglobin which is present in red blood cells and has the key role of transporting oxygen around the body. If iron intakes are chronically low, iron-deficiency anaemia can occur. The symptoms of this include breathlessness tiredness, muscle fatigue, headaches and insomnia.”


Government survey data indicates that some groups of the population have low dietary intakes of iron. These include women of reproductive age, especially pregnant women who have high iron requirements. Iron intakes also fail to meet recommended levels in groups of teenage girls, toddlers and older people.”


“In the most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) mean intakes of iron were well below the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for girls aged 11 to 18 years, and for women aged 19 to 64 years; 58% and 79% of the RNI respectively.”


“Worse still, a total of 44% of 11-18 year old women and 22% aged 19-64 years had inadequate iron intakes from food, thus risking deficiency”


“The Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recently considered the evidence on iron and health. Their report reiterated the presence of low iron intakes in these vulnerable population groups and recommended that appropriate dietary advice be given.”


“Red meats such as beef, lamb and pork are nutrient dense foods, meaning they provide a high level of beneficial nutrients in relation to their energy (calorie) content. Thus, red meat can make a useful contribution to a healthy, balanced diet by boosting important nutrients, such as iron and vitamin D, which are often lacking in our diets.”


Red meat is a useful source of iron in the diet, containing the highly bioavailable haem iron. Haem iron is readily absorbed and utilised by the body compared with non-haem iron which is found mainly in plant foods such as cereals, beans, grains, wholemeal bread and some green vegetables. The absorption of non-haem iron is enhanced by vitamin C and may be reduced in the short term by dietary ingredients such as phytates in high fibre foods and tannins in tea. By contrast, the absorption of haem iron is unaffected by other dietary ingredients, which helps to make the iron from red meat such a useful source.


Dr. Ruxton’s comments that iron from red meat is better absorbed by the human body are likely to have a position in the debate around sustainable diets, particularly prevalent in the foodservice industry.


An article which appeared in in March investigates whether a series of ‘smarter’ menus in foodservice will see fruit and veg push meat to the side. In contrast also to Dr Ruxton’s comments, a little over two years ago, The Lancet published a report that took the debate on sustainable diets to a new level. The study suggested that in order to meet the UK’s targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, livestock production would have to be cut by 30 per cent. As a bonus, the amount of saturated fat consumed would also drop sharply, leading to a 15 per cent reduction in heart disease.


Research all the way back in 2003 showed that UK shoppers are keen to cut back on meat. Datamonitor found that 138 million people across Europe were actively trying to limit their meat intake. The UK had the highest level of “meat-reducers” or “flexitarians” at 46% of the population. A more recent study by Euromonitor showed that sales of meat have actually slowed due, in part, to the growing trend towards meat-free or meat-reduced diets.


So, what’s the best natural source of iron, meat or vegetables? You decide…..