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Questions and Answers
How can I make sure I am getting enough iron?
Iron is a mineral that’s needed in very small amounts, but is nevertheless essential for our wellbeing. It’s needed to make red blood cells and is a vital component of haemoglobin, which gives blood its red colour and transports oxygen around the body to the cells. When dietary iron intakes are low, less haemoglobin is made so there’s less capacity for carrying oxygen to the cells. This means our cells don’t work as effectively, resulting in a condition called iron deficiency anaemia. Typical symptoms include extreme tiredness, fatigue, breathlessness on light exertion, dizzy spells and an unnaturally pale complexion.
Currently, around 40 percent of women aged 19 to 34 years in the UK have iron intakes below the minimum amount needed to stay healthy and so are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia. Teenage girls and pre-menopausal women are at particular risk as they have higher nutritional needs for iron than men and post-menopausal women due to losses during menstruation. Fortunately, this condition can easily be prevented in most people through eating a healthy, balanced diet that contains plenty of iron-rich foods.
Red meat is one of the best sources of iron – in fact, almost a fifth of the iron in our diets in the UK comes from meat and meat products. Other good sources include oil-rich fish, eggs, bread, green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals.
What are the best ways to increase iron absorption?
The iron in animal foods such as red meat is more easily absorbed and used by the body than the iron in plant foods such as vegetables and bread. However, vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron from food, particularly from cereals, fruit and veg, so eat vitamin C-rich foods and iron-rich foods together. For example, have a glass of orange juice with a bowl of breakfast cereal to boost the absorption of iron from the cereal. Or add a vitamin C-rich tomato to an egg sandwich. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits and their juices, berries, blackcurrants, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, peppers and green leafy veg.
In contrast, the absorption of iron is reduced by naturally occurring compounds found in tea and coffee. This means it’s better to wait around half an hour after eating before drinking tea and coffee. Phytates in unrefined cereals such as raw bran can also hinder the absorption of iron so it is best to avoid sprinkling raw bran onto breakfast cereals. And although spinach contains some iron, it also contains a substance that makes it harder for the body to absorb the iron from it.
How much fat do I need?
Some fat is necessary for good health and provides essential fats that can’t be made in the body and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. However, health experts agree that to stay healthy, it’s important to avoid having too much fat as regular high intakes may increase the risk of coronary heart disease and contribute to excessive weight gain.
For good health, around one third of our calories should come from fat, around half should come from carbohydrates found in foods like pasta, potatoes, bread, rice and breakfast cereals, and the remainder should come from protein found in foods such as lean beef, fish, eggs and beans. This means women should have about 70g of fat each day and men about 95g of fat a day.
But as well as eating less fat overall, it’s also important to eat the right types of fat for good health. There are three main types of fat in food – saturates, monounsaturates and polyunsaturates. In particular, saturated fats are most likely to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, so health experts recommend that no more than 10 percent of our calories come from these. This means women should have about 20g of saturated fat, and men about 30g of saturated fat.
What’s the difference between saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats?
Most foods contain a mixture of three main types of fats – saturates, polyunsaturates and monounsaturates – but are usually categorised according to the type of fat found in the largest amount.
• Saturated fats
These types of fats are generally found in animal products such as cream, lard, butter, full-fat milk, cheese and meat, although ghee, coconut oil and palm oil also contain significant amounts. Saturated fats tend to be mostly solid at room temperature. These types of fats are linked to increasing levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein cholesterol) or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood, so health experts recommend eating fewer foods that contain high amounts of them.
• Polyunsaturated fats
These types of fats tend to be found in oil-rich fish and plant foods such as seeds, nuts, vegetable oils like sunflower, sesame and corn oils, and sunflower and soya margarines. Polyunsaturated fats can be divided into two groups – omega-3 polyunsaturates and omega-6 polyunsaturates. Our bodies can make omega-3 fats from plant foods. However, the best ‘ready made’ sources of omega-3 fats are oil-rich fish like salmon, mackerel, trout and fresh tuna. Most polyunsaturates tend to be liquid at room temperature and may help to lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol.
• Monounsaturated fats
These types of fats are found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and meat, for example, lean beef. Monounsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature and heath experts agree that they are the healthiest types of fat as they help to lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, whilst maintaining levels of HDL (high density lipoprotein cholesterol) or ‘good’ cholesterol.
How do I reduce the fat in my diet?
There are many simple ways to reduce the amount of fat in your diet. Try some of these tips…
* Grill, dry fry, poach, steam, boil or microwave food rather than frying it
* If you sometimes cook with oil, use a non-stick pan so that you won’t need as much – and always measure it with a spoon rather than pouring it freely from the bottle. Alternatively, use a spray oil
* Eat fewer high-fat foods such as biscuits, cakes, crisps, pastries and chocolate
* Roast meat on a rack so that any fat it contains drips into the tray below – then drain and discard the fat from the pan before using the meat juices to make gravy or sauces
* Use fat-free or low-fat dressings on salad rather than French dressing or mayonnaise
* Skim fat from the surface of casseroles and stews.
* Eat fewer fatty meat products such as sausages, burgers, pepperoni, salami, pies and pastry products.
* Choose lean cuts of meat and skinless chicken, and cut off any visible fat before cooking
* Use less butter or margarine or swap it for a low-fat spread – but still spread it thinly
* Opt for reduced-fat dairy products such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, reduced-fat cheese and fat-free yogurt
* Serve puddings with low-fat yogurt or fromage frais instead of cream or ice cream
* Choose jacket, mashed or boiled potatoes instead of chips
* Don’t add cream to sauces, soups or coffee
* Use food labels to help you limit the amount of products you buy that are high in fat. According to the Food Standards Agency, high-fat foods contain 20g of fat or more per 100g.