If you’re not knocking back sirloins at a rate that’d make Dwayne Johnson blush, how do you make sure you’re not falling short of iron requirements? This essential nutrient is needed for the normal functioning of your vascular and immune systems. More specifically, it’s used to manufacture haemoglobin – a clever protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around your body – and to switch on enzymes that help convert food you eat into energy. In Australia, women are advised to consume 18mg of dietary iron a day. It comes in two forms: haem iron, found in meat, and non-haem, from cereals, nuts, eggs and some veg, such as broccoli and chard. It’s also added to foods such as breakfast cereals. For most of us, a balanced diet should be sufficient – a bowl of fortified cereal, a three-bean salad and a portion of spag bol made with lean mince scores nearly 15mg. But, wait for the catch: haem iron is between two and six times more available to the body than non-haem iron. And iron from plant sources is further compromised by compounds (phytates in cereals and beans, and tannins in tea) that inhibit absorption, but the long-term impact of this is unclear. Your iron levels can also be influenced by factors beyond your diet, such as, oh, being a woman. Heavy periods are a common cause of iron deficiency in premenopausal women, while pregnancy ups your requirement to 27mg daily, although fun fact: mums-to-be are actually more efficient at absorbing iron. Low levels (due to low dietary intake, poor absorption or heavy periods) won’t necessarily translate to a deficiency, but consistently low ones will eventually deplete stores, leading to less haemoglobin in the blood and fewer red blood cells – a condition known as anaemia. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, hair loss and restless leg syndrome. If you follow a plant-based diet, have heavy periods or you’re pregnant, include iron-rich foods in meals that also contain vitamin C, which increases iron absorption, and avoid drinking tea around mealtimes. Supplements can also be helpful, but proceed with caution: excess iron is stored in organs, where it can increase the risk of conditions such as liver disease. As always, chat to your friendly doc first.
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Worried? Your GP can check your iron levels with a blood test. If you are deficient, you may be prescribed an iron supp to, erm, iron out your issues.
With its role in bone strengthening as well as muscle, heart and enzyme function, calcium is a bone-afide (LOL) health hero. But, three-quarters of women and half of blokes aren’t getting enough, says a 2015 study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Food Standards Australia New Zealand. “I think the people most at risk are the ones cutting out dairy foods,” according to Milly Smith, accredited practising dietitian and spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia. While this can be for a legit intolerance or allergy, Smith also nods to the rise in vegan and plant-based diets, as well as fad approaches that suggest swerving dairy, a core food group. “The biggest thing we worry about [from low calcium] is osteoporosis, and losing that bone density and increasing risk of fractures when you’re older.” The recommended intake is 1000mg daily and, dairy aside, sources include tofu (832mg per cup) and tinned fish, which contain tiny calcium-rich bones (about 486mg per 90g of sardines).
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Mushrooms are packed with vitamin D, crucial for helping our bodies to absorb calcium. “Put them in direct sunlight for 30 minutes before you use them, so they absorb even more vitamin D from the sun,” tips Smith. Genius.
Think of magic mag as an all-rounder, stepping up to bat for a huge range of processes in the body. “It’s involved in absorbing energy from food, as well as helping our bodies with growth and repair, which is why we often see people using magnesium supplements in the sports field,” explains Smith. Need more proof? A 2018 study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found vitamin D can’t be metabolised (read: processed) in the body without sufficient magnesium levels. You want between 310mg and 320mg each day depending on your age, but missing out on core food groups (via things such as low nutrition or a restrictive diet) can leave you below par. “Foods that provide us with magnesium include cereals, nuts and seeds, green vegetables, meats and animal products,” says Smith. FYI, those almonds in your snack drawer? Just 30g packs 80mg of mag. Even a cup of avo boasts 44mg.
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Loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, pins and needles and muscle spasms can all be symptoms of magnesium deficiency
Not only does B12 work to champion our nerve cells and mental ability, it supports “our red blood cell formation, which helps with energy production,” says Smith. Read: it’s a winner when you need to ace or stay awake through a preso. That said, we’re definitely falling short on the recommended 2.4mg daily, agrees Smith. “The best sources are animal products, including liver [85g packs 70mg], meat, milk, cheese and eggs,” she says. “So, it can be really difficult to consume an adequate amount of B12 on a plant-only diet.” Not always easy being green, eh? If that’s the case, choose B12-fortified foods, which can include soy products, some grains, nutritional yeasts and meat substitutes. “Also, chat to your GP about getting regular blood tests to check your levels,” urges Smith. “If they do start to decrease, you can look at a supplement as well.”
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B12 has a partner in crime: folate, which is particularly crucial during pregnancy, when it’s needed early on for the development of a baby’s nervous system and neural tube. Great sources include grains, cereals, vegies, legumes and fruit, while a supplement of folic acid (the man-made form of folate) is recommended pre-conception and during pregnancy.