Is This You?

a tired asian woman falls asleep on a bench while writing on her notepad 

There are days when you just feel drained, aren’t there? When you can barely stand up straight, and the thought of tackling housework or the kids at the end of a workday just saps whatever energy’s left. When the only physical activity you want to do is slump into your seat and you only have strength to lift the television remote control.

You may have iron deficiency anaemia and not know it. Some of the symptoms are easily ascribed to other causes, and you may have had them for years without ever knowing why.

Related: Energy Boosting Breakfasts

How to Tell if you Could be Iron Deficient

Lack of Energy

The first clue to iron deficiency is a constant feeling of exhaustion. If you’re always fatigued, you may be anaemic.

Pale Skin

Unfortunately, this isn’t the beauty fix you’re hoping for! Paleness from anaemia leaves you looking ill, instead.

Fast or Irregular Heartbeat

You sometimes catch your heart rate soaring and wonder why. It might even skip a beat now and then.

Easily out of Breath / Weakness

Everyone overtakes you on the stairs, and by the time you’re halfway up the first flight, you’re already panting. That load of groceries feels heavier than it looks, too.


Do you get giddy when you stand up after sitting or lying down? That’s anaemia at work again.

Brittle or Grooved Nails

You’re thinking it’s time for a manicure — again. You probably need iron, not a beautician.

Cold Hands and Feet

You’ve resorted to socks and gloves in bed because your extremities are always cold. Your friends get a shock when you touch them to say hello.

Worried that you might be iron deficient? You’ll need a blood test for a proper diagnosis. Talk to your doctor!

*Don’t self-medicate with iron supplements unless advised by your doctor. Too much iron presents another set of problems.

Why It Happens

Iron is a key nutrient that helps the haemoglobin in your red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body to your organs, and gives blood its red colour. Anemia is a condition where your body does not have sufficient healthy red blood cells. A common type of anemia is iron-deficiency anemia when your body does not have enough iron.

Iron deficiencies occur for many reasons, which could account for its prevalence—in 2011, up to 40 percent of women of reproductive age in Southeast Asia had this condition[1].

Here are some causes, or risk factors:

  • Chronic or excessive blood loss, including heavy menstrual bleeding, ulcers or haemorrhoids, and other disease conditions.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) may cause bleeding in the stomach which then interferes with iron absorption. Aspirin and Ibuprofen are commonly prescribed NSAIDS.

  • Inadequate intake of iron in your diet, especially if you’re on a vegan or vegetarian diet.

  • Family history

  • Pregnancy

Related: Is It Healthier to Go Vegetarian?

What Can I Do?

This dietary mineral is essential when it comes to having enough energy for daily life, but according to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency “remains one of the most severe and important nutritional deficiencies in the world today”[2].

Eat for Iron!

Choose more haem iron (from animal sources) over non-haem iron (from plant sources), as our bodies absorb the haem form better. Remember to eat them in the recommended quantities (Use My Healthy Plate to build a balanced meal).

Boost your body’s iron stores with these:

Haem sources (in descending order of amount of iron found in them)

close up of shrimp on steak and vegetables in the background 

  • Liver (pregnant ladies should limit its intake and make sure that it is well-cooked)

  • Red meat

  • Pork

  • Poultry

  • Seafood such as fish, clams, sardines, prawns and oysters

Non-haem sources

close up of fresh broccoli 

  • Whole-grain noodles, brown rice, cargo rice

  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads

  • Dark green leafy vegetables, like kailan

  • Broccoli

  • Dried fruit like prunes, raisins, wolfberries (gou qi zi)

  • Nuts, seeds, dried beans and peas

To increase non-haem iron absorption, pair the non-haem sources of iron with high-vitamin C fruits such as guavas, papayas, oranges, and kiwis.

Have your caffeinated drinks such as coffee and tea two hours before or after meals, as caffeine can interfere with iron absorption.

Related: Makan Matters: What's a Healthy Diet?

What about Vegans?

Vegans can consume non-haem sources of iron such as green leafy vegetables and fruits rich in Vitamin C to maximise their iron absorption. They can also get alternative sources of iron from beans (eg, bean products such as soy beans, tempeh, lentils, tofu, chickpeas), wholegrains, nuts and seeds.

Even then, it may not be enough especially for women, whose recommended RDA for iron is 19mg. Vegans should talk to their doctors about iron supplements if they suspect they may be lacking the nutrient.

Eat well, and regain some energy as well as a healthy glow. It’s not hard, and you’ll certainly feel the difference.

Read these next:


  1. World Health Organization. (2015). The global prevalence of anaemia in 2011 [PDF].
    Retrieved February 2016 from

  2. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Iron Deficiency Anaemia Assessment, Prevention, and Control: A guide for programme managers [PDF].
    Retrieved February 2016 from

  3. Cafasso, J. & Nall, R. (2015, Oct 15). Iron Deficiency Anemia [healthline].
    Retrieved February 2016 from

  4. Victoria State Government. (2014, Sep). Iron deficiency - adults [BetterHealth Channel].
    Retrieved February 2016 from

  5. Iron Disorders Institute. (2016, Jun 30). Achieving Iron Balance with Diet [Iron Disorders Institute].
    Retrieved February 2016 from