Study Finds Russian Women, Children Not Getting Enough Iron In Their Diets

April 08, 1998

UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Russian women and children, especially those from poorer families, fail to consume enough iron in their diets, and the deficiency could seriously damage their health, according to a new study. More than half the iron they do ingest is lost through interactions with other foods.

Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted the research, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, with several Russian academic and government institutions. It involved analyzing information from the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Study, a continuing large Moscow-based survey about health and nutrition.

"Introduction of free-market policies and loss of traditionally important suppliers has led to a sharp rise in the cost of many basic foods in Russia," said Dr. Martin Kohlmeier, research professor of nutrition at the UNC-CH schools of public health and medicine. "This has raised concerns that some Russians cannot afford the foods they need to maintain optimal health.

"An adequate supply of iron is especially important for the unborn child throughout pregnancy and for young children because their mental and physical development can be slowed by even moderate deficiencies," Kohlmeier said. "Brain and other sensitive tissue may suffer irreversible deficits."

A report on the findings in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health appears Thursday (April 9). Kohlmeier and his wife Lenore, also professor of nutrition and epidemiology, led the iron research. Co-authors are Dr. Michelle Mendez and Hrishikesh Chakraborty of UNC-CH's public health school, Dr. Svetlana Shalnova of the Russian Center for Preventive Medicine and Dr. Arseny Martinchik of the Russian Institute of Nutrition and Academy of Medical Sciences.

The survey, repeated four times, involved interviews with a representative sample of 3,188 women of reproductive age in more than 6,000 households about diet and other lifestyle characteristics. Among them, the women had 1,764 children aged 13 or younger.

From answers about how much meat and non-meat foods such as fruit were consumed, researchers estimated iron consumption. They found total dietary iron among the women was only two-thirds of the recommended level in Russia.

"Less than an eighth of total iron was heme iron, which is a readily absorbable form of iron in meats," Martin Kohlmeier said. "When corrected for intake of enhancers and inhibitors of iron absorption, the estimated absorbable iron was less than .5 milligrams a day. Consumption of inhibitors in grain products, tea and other foods results in up to 58 percent loss of otherwise available iron."

Between 1992 and 1993, intake of useable iron among young women fell by 8 percent, he said. Overall, children's iron intake was less than the amount believed needed for adequate growth and optimal health and was especially low during summer months.

"Children from families with incomes below the poverty line tended to have even lower intakes than children in better-off households," the scientist said.

"These data show that iron intake is less than optimal in this most vulnerable group of Russians," Kohlmeier said. "Health-care providers and the public in Russia need to know that children and young women do not get enough iron."

Educated meal planning can boost iron intake from available foods, he said. Besides stressing inclusion of vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich meals, young women need to know that avoiding inhibitors of iron absorption can help. In the Russian diet, tea, rye bread, nuts and seeds are among the most common iron absorption inhibitors.

Iron is one of the nutrients most often lacking in poor people's diets.

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Note: Martin and Lenore Kohlmeier can be reached at (919) 966-7240 and 966-7450, respectively.

School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 966-8498.
News Services Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596 .

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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