By Carol Harrison, RD
Is More Common In Canada Than We Thought
New Canadian research shows that rates of iron deficiency are even higher than previously reported. That’s concerning, but perhaps not surprising given we already knew that:
- Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. According to the World Health Organization, it is the only nutrient deficiency that remains prevalent in industrialized countries today.1
- Iron was already a nutrient of concern in Canada2—that’s why it’s one of three nutrients included on the Nutrition Facts table on food products (the others are potassium and calcium).3
Using improved analysis methods, researchers at Health Canada updated estimates of iron deficiency, based on data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey 2012–2019. They published their findings in The Journal of Nutrition in May 2023.
Estimates of iron deficiency in Canada4
|Group||Previous estimate of iron deficiency |
|New estimate of iron deficiency |
|Women aged 19-50 (non-pregnant only)||18 %||29%|
|Teenage girls aged 14-18||21%||27%|
|Girls aged 5-13||9%||12.5%|
|Boys aged 5-13||7%||10%|
|Girls and boys aged 3-4||10%||17%|
Why iron matters
Iron is needed to carry oxygen throughout our body and brain, so it’s easy to see how it’s vital for our health.
You might be familiar with the short-term health impacts of low iron. These can include fatigue, headaches, irritability, brain fog (forgetfulness, fuzzy thinking), trouble with focusing, and difficulty with finishing workouts.5,6 These symptoms are disruptive enough for children, teens and adults alike, but low iron can have more serious, longer-term effects as well, such as a rapid heart rate, dizziness, shortness of breath and weakened immunity.7,8
Low iron has also been linked to sleep disorders9 and mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety.10
It’s far better to try to prevent low iron than struggle to improve it.
Correcting low iron levels can take months, which is why these higher rates of estimated iron deficiency are concerning. For a young child, that’s a long time to struggle concentrating at school or to be more susceptible to illness. For teenage girls and women, months of feeling exhausted or depressed is a serious burden impacting all areas of daily living.
Recent Canadian research shows that more frequent red meat consumption is the only dietary factor associated with better iron status in women.11
That’s likely because red meats like beef, pork, lamb and goat are not only a top source of iron, but the iron they contain (heme iron) is far better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron from eggs and plant sources like lentils, tofu and enriched pasta (though these can also be important sources of iron in the diet).12
Good to know: Adding meat (or poultry or fish) to a meal will boost the iron absorbed from non-heme iron (found in eggs, and plant sources of iron such as enriched pasta, legumes, nuts/seeds) by a whopping 150%.13
Concerned about iron?
If you think you or someone you care for has low iron, talk to your health care provider.
Find out more. Review the importance of iron to learn:
- why iron is important
- how much iron you need;
- who is most at risk for low iron
- how to get enough iron
Check out these delicious recipes :
This Ginger Beef & Mushroom Bowl highlights how different food groups work together to make tasty, beautiful food that is good for you too!
This Big Batch Beef and Cheddar Sheet Pan Omelette recipe makes a great grab-and-go meal that’s fast, nutritious and delicious!
- Micronutrients. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/micronutrient-malnutrition/index.html ↩︎
- Health Canada’s proposed changes to the core nutrients declared in the Canadian Nutrition Facts table. Health Canada. 2014. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/public-involvement-partnerships/technical-consultation-proposed-changes-core-nutrients-declared-canadian-nutrition-facts-table/consultation.html ↩︎
- Information within the Nutrition Facts table: Mandatory Information. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 2021. https://inspection.canada.ca/food-labels/labelling/industry/nutrition-labelling/nutrition-facts-table/eng/1389198568400/1389198597278?chap=0 ↩︎
- Cooper M, Bertinato J, Ennis JK et al. Population Iron Status in Canada: Results from the Canadian Health Measures Survey 2012–2019. J Nutr. 2023 May;153(5):1534–43.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36918146/ https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tjnut.2023.03.012. ↩︎
- Iron Deficiency Anemia. HealthLink BC. November 29, 2021. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthy-eating-physical-activity/conditions/anemia/iron-deficiency-anemia ↩︎
- Hinton PS. Iron and the endurance athlete. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Sep;39(9):1012–8. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0147. Epub 2014 May 27. PMID: 25017111. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25017111/ ↩︎
- Kumar A, Sharma E, Marley A et al. Iron deficiency anaemia: pathophysiology, assessment, practical management. BMJ Open Gastroenterol. 2022 Jan;9(1):e000759. doi: 10.1136/bmjgast-2021-000759. PMID: 34996762; PMCID: PMC8744124. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34996762/ ↩︎
- Iron Deficiency – Diagnosis and Management. Government of British Columbia. April 17, 2019. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/health/practitioner-professional-resources/bc-guidelines/iron-deficiency#signs-symptoms ↩︎
- Leung W, Singh I, McWilliams S et al. Iron deficiency and sleep – A scoping review. Sleep Med Rev. 2020 Jun;51:101274. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2020.101274. Epub 2020 Feb 8. PMID: 32224451. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32224451/ ↩︎
- Lee HS, Chao HH, Huang WT et al. Psychiatric disorders risk in patients with iron deficiency anemia and association with iron supplementation medications: a nationwide database analysis. BMC Psychiatry 20, 216 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02621-0. https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-020-02621-0 ↩︎
- Chang VC, Cotterchio M, Kotsopoulos J et al. Iron Status and Associated Factors among Canadian Women: Results from the Canadian Health Measures Survey. J Nutr. 2023 Mar;153(3):781–97. doi: 10.1016/j.tjnut.2022.10.011. Epub 2022 Dec 20. PMID: 36788041. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7492370/ ↩︎
- Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Micronutrients. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 1, Introduction to Dietary Reference Intakes. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222321/ ↩︎
- Engelmann MD, Davidsson L, Sandström B et al. The influence of meat on nonheme iron absorption in infants. Pediatr Res. 1998 Jun;43(6):768-73. doi: 10.1203/00006450-199806000-00009. PMID: 9621986. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9621986/ ↩︎