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Iron deficiency is suffocating our teen girls

26 August 2019

The Silent Epidemic: Iron deficiency is suffocating our teen girls

As World Iron Awareness Week kicks off, Beef + Lamb New Zealand shines a spotlight on the epidemic young women are facing in relation to iron deficiency for meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike.

In bringing together leading experts from across the New Zealand nutrition spectrum Nikki Hart (Registered Nutritionist), Dr Claire Badenhorst (Massey University), Ashia Ismail- Singer (Author and School Nurse), and Jeni Pearce along with Rachel Stentiford (High Performance Sport New Zealand), the serious issue has been brought to light via the latest Let’s Talk Food NZ podcast.


Dr Claire Badenhorst, whose research expertise lies in the field of exercise physiology investigating the impact of iron deficiency within endurance athletes, was unequivocal in her assessment of the current crisis facing young women and iron deficiency.

“From what I am seeing in my work there is a significant proportion of women who are suffering from the impacts of low iron levels. I know the implications of iron deficiency first hand as I am someone who struggles to maintain healthy levels of iron and I can tell you, it’s like your body is being suffocated. It can be debilitating.”

Dr Badenhorst continued: “I am lucky in the sense that I am mindful of my struggles with iron and can manage them accordingly. However, many women, especially young girls, are not aware as symptoms are often attributed to just being busy and not getting enough sleep.”

From a sport point of view, Jeni Pearce highlighted that prevention of low iron is the goal.

“Low or reduced iron levels may effect energy levels and performance and it can take three months or more to replenish low iron stores in the body. The key is to include dietary sources of iron (meat and non-meat) in your meals and snacks on a daily basis, especially while growing and for those who are active. This will help keep energy levels up and enhance the enjoyment of sport.”

One billion people globally are estimated by the World Health Organisation to be suffering from iron deficiency anaemia[1]. 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% of adolescent girls have been reported to be anaemic[2].

Here in Aotearoa, the statistics don’t look much better. Based on the most recent national nutrition survey from 2009[3], 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[4] and over the past three years the Ministry of Health has spent a staggering $20 million on treating iron deficiency.

Fiona Windle, Head of Nutrition at Beef + Lamb New Zealand, made it clear that this epidemic is something we can get a grip of, and it’s not just a matter about whether someone is a meat eater or not:

“Modifying your diet in a few simple ways can help contribute to maintaining healthy iron levels. For example, eating lots of vitamin C-rich veges with a serving of beef or lamb, can help boost iron absorption from the meal. Equally avoiding drinking tea and coffee around meal times can also make a big difference.”

For those opting to be vegetarian or vegan, Nikki Hart highlights during the podcast discussion, “It’s simply not about taking meat off the plate, and just eating the side of veges. Careful consideration needs to be given to what replaces the nutritious animal protein. Seeing a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian can be useful particularly for our very active teens”, emphasises Ms Hart.

However, Mrs Windle reiterated: “There are many causes of iron deficiency and we would highly recommend anyone suffering from persisting symptoms to go and see their GP to get a blood test first.”

For anyone looking for information on iron deficiency should head to

[1] Murray CJL, Salomon JA, Mathers CD, Lopez AD. The global burden of disease. Geneva: World Health Organization. (2002).
[2] Prevention of Iron Deficiency Anaemia in Adolescents. Role of Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation. World Health Organisation. (2011).
[3] 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.
[4] More spent on low iron hospitalisations as meat intake 1st January 2019 declines


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