A new University of Sydney study has found high levels of dietary restraint among female university students, including those enrolled in the faculties of health science, with almost a third of the study population exhibiting iron deficiency.
Of the total study population, 1 in 9 has the severe form of iron deficiency- anaemia, almost a third had iron stores below the normal level and 1 in 12 were deficient in vitamin B12.
Study lead, Associate Professor Samir Samman says these findings are alarming because they indicate that restrained eating behaviour can negatively impact nutritional status and that even well educated women with a background in health can have unhealthy attitudes towards food.
"Wen we assessed eating behaviour and dietary intake we found a strong correlation between avoidance of red meat and a deficit of iron and vitamin B12. For example, 77% of those with low iron stores reported restricted red meat eating, that is, they ate red meat less foten than the recommended 3-4 times a week. This leads us to believe that avoidance of red meat may be a reason for low status, which is particular importance to women of childbearing age," explained Associate Professor Samman
Low iron intake in adults is associated with reduced work capacity, poor response to exercise, frequent infections and an inability to concentrate. It is essential for producing energy from food and for optimal brain function. Vitamin B12 is very important in maintaining a healthy nervous system and lacking vitamin B12 can also adversely affect memory and concentration. Vitamin B12 does not naturally occur in foods or plant origin.
"This is the first study of its kind to look into the effects of dietary restraint and food choices on nutrient status in women, so while further investigation is required, these results suggest more needs to be done to educate women, especially those of childbearing age, on the importance of eating a balanced diet that includes sufficient amounts of nutrient-rich foods like lean red meat," added Associate Professor Samman.
Three hundred women with an average age of 23 enrolled in a range of faculties including Dentistry, Agriculture and Health Sciences participated in the study.
Associate Professor Samir Samman presented his landmark findings at a nutrition symposium hosted by the Dietitians Association of Australia.
Both the symposium and the University of Sydney study were funded by grants provided by Meat & Livestock Australia.
There are two types of iron in food:
Haem-iron is found in animal foods and is well absorbed with around 20% or more being absorbed by the body.
Non-haem-iron is found in plant foods and is less well absorbed with only around 5% or less being absorbed by the body.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend eating lean red meat 3 to 4 times a week because it is a good source of iron, or high iron replacement food will be required.
Three easy steps to increasing your iron intake:
1. At each meal, choose foods which contain well-absorbed iron such as lean red meat.
2. Combine non-meat meals with good sources of vitamin C such as citrus fruits and juices, berries and capsicum to increase the absorption of non-haem-iron.
3. Drink tea and coffee between meals instead of at mealtimes, as they contain tannins which reduce iron absorption.