Any qualified dietician or health expert will tell you that women have significantly higher daily requirements of iron than men.
Yet studies released this year from Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest higher numbers of Australian women are not meeting these requirements.
The results of the second release of nutrition data from the 2011/2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey indicate as many as 23 per cent of females are not meeting their daily iron requirements, as compared to only three per cent of males.
Jane Scott from the School of Public Health at Curtin University says there are several reasons why this trend is emerging.
“Women have a higher requirement of iron because they lose blood with menstruation,” says Professor Scott.
“The daily iron requirement for men is 8mg, but for a menstruating woman it’s 18mg of iron.
“Women tend to eat less food for a variety of reasons, so it can be quite hard to get the iron.”
Professor Scott says lifestyle choices regarding the ethics of eating animal products could also be a factor.
“Certainly there are more female vegetarians than males, and we know amongst teenage girls that there is an element of the ethical implications, such as cruelty to animals,” she says.
“I think in a place like Australia there’s a real culture for men about being red meat eaters so they’re less inclined to do that.
“Anecdotally it would suggest that women are more concerned about those ethical issues in general.”
Professor Scott says although the statistic is not overly surprising, it is a concern especially amongst women during childbearing years.
“If women are going into pregnancy with low iron, it can have consequences, as it’s a contributing factor to pre-term delivery and to low birth weight,” she says.
“A baby’s stores of iron are laid down in the last trimester of pregnancy, so if [the babies] are delivered early, then they have less chance of getting their iron stores topped up.”
Although implications for pregnant women with low iron can be serious, Professor Scott says the number of people with serious iron deficiencies is relatively low.
“In Australia, there’s a difference between having low iron and having anaemia and being a real deficiency anaemic,” she says.
“We don’t have as many real serious cases of iron deficiencies and anaemia.”
Although low iron is not necessarily life threatening, studies from Deakin University indicate too little iron could have serious implications on mental heath.
Felice Jacka from Deakin University conducted the research, and says there was a significant link between consumption of red meat and overall mental wellbeing.
“In a large, representative sample of Australian women across the age range, we looked at the possible associations between the intake of unprocessed red meat [beef and lamb] and the common mental disorders,” says Associate Professor Jacka.
“We took into account overall diet quality, as some people who eat a lot of meat also eat a lot of vegetables and other healthy foods, while others might eat a lot of meat as part of an unhealthy diet.
“Finally, we took into account other important variables such as age, socioeconomic status and education, and also removed those who ate no meat, as they have been previously shown to have worse mental health.
“We found that those women who ate either less than or more than the recommended amount were twice as likely to have a clinical depressive [major depression or dysthymia] or anxiety disorder, both before and after taking those other factors into account.”
These requirements are significantly higher than the required daily intake for the average male, which is just 8 mg per day.
Children have varying daily requirements of iron, based on age and gender.
Despite these research findings, the number of Australians turning to vegetarianism is on the rise.
Statistics from Roy Morgan Research showed more than 1.9 million Australians agreed with the statement, ‘The food I eat is all, or almost all, vegetarian,’ in 2013, as opposed to 1.6 million in 2009.
Additionally, statistics from Meat and Livestock Australia in 2008 indicate red meat consumption has declined markedly in recent decades, as per the graph below.
Professor Scott says this is mainly due to recommendations made by health authorities, and the rising prices of meat.
“Reduced consumption of red meat has been recommended by health authorities because it contains saturated fats and increases the risk of heart disease,” she says.
“More recently, the World Cancer Research Fund in its latest report recommended limiting meat intake because it is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
“Another factor is the relatively high cost of red meat which has increased disproportionately to increases in wages.”
Professor Scott also says ethical concerns regarding the consumption of animal products could contribute to this trend.
Curtin University student Amy Kerr, 19, says her decision to become vegetarian was purely for ethical reasons.
“It just felt contradictory to love animals so much and then eat them for dinner,” Ms Kerr says.
“I’ve never really felt quite right about it, but now that I’m older and everything I eat is completely in my own hands, red meat isn’t something I want as part of my diet anymore.
“I just feel so much better about myself as a person and now I am more aware of everything that I’m putting into my body.”
She says the transition to vegetarianism was difficult at first, as she had to take iron supplements and constantly felt lethargic.
“When I first made the switch, I was quite drained for a month or so and struggled to make it through the day without a nap or a long sit,” she says.
“I was taking iron pills before I switched [to vegetarianism] and for the beginning of when I was, but I went off them to try to get my body to be able to manage vegetarianism on its own.”
Lynda Purser, 50, works at vegan food market Harvest Health in Joondalup, and has been a vegan for four years for ethical reasons.
Prior to her transition to the vegan diet, she was a vegetarian for 10 years.
“My respect and concern for the welfare of all animals governs my whole lifestyle,” Mrs Purser says.
“The cruelty inflicted on animals by humans is abhorrent and can never be justified in any way.”
Mrs Purser says the vegan diet is not only favourable for animals, but is also be beneficial in eradicating other global issues.
“If the land and crops dedicated to feeding the animals for human consumption were available to humans, much of the global food shortages and environmental problems could be effectively addressed,” she says.
WA Beef Council member Stephen Meerwald says the increasing number of people adopting the vegetarian or vegan diet and being more aware of ethical issues could already be having an impact on the beef industry.
“The direct impact on consumption may have been consistent for some time,” Meerwald says.
“The exaggerated impact is if the eating habits of these women influence the family consumption patterns.
“Supermarket chains are leading this [ethical movement] with no Human Genome Project, grass fed, and ethically raised cattle marketing programs.
“This appeals to consumers but in many ways adds to the cost of production.”
Regardless of domestic eating habits, Mr Meerwald says the international market will always have a place for Australian beef.
“Global beef consumption is rising and production is not keeping up with demand,” he says.
“For everyone in Australia that chooses not to eat red meat there are many more people in our export markets that are choosing to do so.”