Iron is an essential mineral to ensure good health and wellbeing for women and girls

WHEN she was 15 years old, Sara Khong started to lose more hair than normal.

Initially, she thought it was because she was using the wrong shampoo. She tried switching to a different one and also used a wide-toothed comb in an attempt to reduce her hair loss but the problem persisted and she became very distressed.

Eventually, her concerned parents took her to the doctor who diagnosed her as being iron deficient.

Khong was put on iron supplements and also told to include more iron rich food in her diet.

It’s a habit Khong has stayed faithful to in order to maintain her health.

Now a chef, author, recipe developer, food writer and stylist, she makes it a habit to always include iron rich food in her cooking and also consciously orders iron rich meals when she dines out.

“I never realised then that my hair loss was due to lack of iron. As a teenager it was a distressing period for me,” says Khong.

She recalls how her mother started to prepare more iron rich food for the family after her diagnosis, making dishes such as spinach soup and sambal kerang (cockle sambal). She also made Khong eat chicken liver which she really disliked but now consuming iron rich food has become a lifestyle for Khong.


Many women go about their daily lives without realising they are iron deficient.

THE HIDDEN DANGER

Like Khong many women may be unaware that they are iron deficient and go about their daily lives despite experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, headache and dizziness.

Ernie Syafika Zamri, a nutritionist, says women are especially susceptible to iron deficiency compared to men because starting from puberty, they lose blood every month during their menstrual cycle, one of the most common reasons why women are more likely to suffer from anaemia. Women with heavy periods will be more susceptible to the condition.

If their iron source is not replenished through their diet or by other means, these women may suffer from Iron Deficiency Anaemia or IDA, a common type of anaemia that happens when the body does not have enough iron to generate red blood cells.

“Most women don’t realise their lack-of-iron symptoms or its consequences to their health or even address their condition, thus affecting their well-being,” says Ernie.


Headaches are one of the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia. Picture: Designed by Freepik.

IDA can also happen because of your body’s inability to absorb iron or because it produces red blood cells too slowly (due to viral infections or radiotherapy), or because of blood loss due to injury or surgery and internal bleeding.

The increased demand for iron during pregnancy can also cause IDA among women.

Ernie says adequate iron intake is crucial for pregnant women because they are not only nourishing themselves with iron but also their baby which is why pregnant and lactating mothers must follow a well balanced diet.

She stresses that iron is an essential mineral but it cannot be produced by the body. This means we need to get it from our diet and through supplementation.

Iron is a vital component of haemoglobin ( a protein in red blood cells) which transports oxygen from our lungs to other parts of the body and if our body doesn’t have enough iron, it cannot produce enough haemoglobin.

Most women are not aware that they are iron deficient because the symptoms of iron deficiency are similar to other common health conditions. Ernie says this is why it’s always good to go for a full blood count once a year to check whether your iron content is adequate.

Mothers whose daughters have just started menstruating should also be aware of the potential for iron deficiency and include iron rich foods such as chicken liver, cockles or red meat in her diet.

If the family is vegetarian, they can consume non animal based iron rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, dried fruit such as raisins, dates and prunes and also nuts such as pistachios, almonds and cashews.

Local favourites such as tempeh and soy milk are also good sources of iron explains Ernie.


Consume an iron rich diet.

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DID YOU KNOW?

*Our body absorbs the most iron from heme sources or animal sources.

*Choose foods containing Vitamin C to enhance the body’s iron absorption.

*Iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach.

*To treat iron deficiency anaemia, your doctor may recommend iron supplements. Your healthcare professional will also treat the underlying cause of your iron deficiency, if necessary.


Young girls need an iron rich diet because of blood loss due to menstruation.

Source:Mega Lifesciences.

POWER YOUR MEALS

IRON rich dishes are simple and easy to prepare and contrary to what many people think, they need not be boring and unappetising.

Here are three recipes from chef Sara Khong:

THREE DATES TONIC

Ingredients

120g (2 cups) red dates

60g (9 pieces) black dates

120g (6 pieces) honey dates

2L (10 cups) water

Method

1.Rinse and cut dates in half with a pair of scissors and remove seeds.

2.Place all the ingredients in a pot and bring to boil. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. If cooking with a slow cooker, cook on “low” for 8-10 hours for maximum flavour.

3.This tonic can also be made in a pressure cooker. Just cook for 20 minutes.

PINK PITTAYA SMOOTHIE BOWL

Ingredients

1 red dragonfruit

100ml (1/2cup) soy milk

1 small banana

2 tbsp cashew nuts

1tbsp pumpkin seeds

Method

1.Slice dragonfruit in half.

2.Scoop the flesh of the fruit with a spoon and toss into a blender.

3.Pour in soy milk into the blender.

4.Blend until smooth.

5.Pour the smoothie into two bowls. Top with slices of banana, cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds.

SARDINE PERATAL

(Dry Sardine Curry)

Ingredients

2 tbsp cooking oil

2 stalks curry leaves

2 large red onions, sliced

1 red chilli, deseeded and sliced

1 can sardine/mackerel in tomato sauce (425g)

1-2 tsp chili powder (optional)

Method

1.Pour oil into a pan. Over a medium fire, sautee onions, chili and curry leaves until onions turn golden brown.

2. Add sardine along with its sauce . Mash sardine with a spatula and cook until sauce boils.

3.Add chilli powder. Mix well and cook until dry. Spread on bread to consume or serve with rice.

THE PRESSING PROBLEM

ACCORDING to Nils Milman’s 2015 research “Iron Deficiency and Anaemia in Pregnant Women: Still a Significant and Challenging Health Problem” the rate of anaemia in pregnant women in Malaysia is between 42.5- 47.5 per cent, with a subsequent rate of iron deficiency (reported to be the cause of anaemia) as high as 50 to 65.3 per cent.

The World Health Organisation estimates that globally, anaemia affects around 1.62 billion people with the prevalence among pregnant and non-pregnant women being 41.8 per cent and 30.2 per cent respectively.


Choose foods containing Vitamin C to enhance the body’s iron absorption.Picture: Designed by Freepik.

CHILDHOOD RISK

BESIDES women, children too have a higher risk of getting iron deficiency anaemia. In order to prevent iron deficiency anaemia in infants, parents and caregivers must ensure that they include iron fortified cereals or pureed meats for infants between the ages of 5-6 months.

Iron-rich food should be taken at least twice a day to boost iron intake. After the child is a year old, he or she should not drink more than 24 ounces of milk a day as too much milk takes the place of other foods, including ones that are rich in iron.

Source: www.myhealth.gov.my - Ministry of Health’s MyHEALTH portal

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