Pump up the Iron

Why is iron so important for our body? “We need adequate iron to produce hemoglobin and myoglobin, an essential part of red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body,” says Julie Stefanski, RDN, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

Stefanski says that low levels of the mineral can make you feel physically tired and weak, impair brain function, and weaken the immune system, which impairs the ability to fight off colds and other illnesses. Anemia is a condition resulting from an inefficient red blood cell count. If you like to sweat, optimal hemoglobin values ​​are important for endurance.

Iron deficiency on the rise

With that in mind, it’s worrying that recent research suggests that iron deficiency is on the rise in the US. A 2021 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that iron deficiency rates in Americans have increased since 1999, as have the rates of people being treated for severe anemia and deaths from iron-deficiency anemia. Untreated long-term iron deficiency can contribute to heart disease and death from cardiovascular disease.

Why the shortage? The researchers attribute this largely to a drop in iron intake: a 9.5% drop in women and a 6.6% drop in men between 1999 and 2018. Over the nearly two-decade study period, average beef intake declined while there was an increase in chicken consumption, which provides less iron. Using USDA nutritional data from dozens of foods, it was also found that iron levels had decreased in 62% of the animal and plant-based foods analyzed, which could be the result of changes in farming practices.

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And as more people switch to plant-based diets, Stefanski says the risk of poor iron status could increase — “the form of iron in plants isn’t as bioavailable to us as the iron in animal foods and certain natural components of plants that are.” known as phytates and tannins can bind iron and limit how much is absorbed by the body.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, vegetarians and vegans need to consume about twice the amount of iron per day to meet their needs. Another reason you may be iron deficient is that your body’s requirements may have increased. This is common in pregnant women and people who lose blood through blood donation, bowel disease, or menstruation. According to the World Health Organization, about a third of all women of childbearing age worldwide are anemic. “If a person has a digestive disease like celiac disease or bacterial overgrowth, it can lead to poor iron absorption and anemia,” adds Stefanski.

take what you need

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends that men ages 19 to 50 consume eight milligrams (mg) of iron per day and premenopausal women consume 18 mg of iron per day. After menopause, women’s iron requirements drop to the same level as men’s: eight mg per day.

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The body cannot make iron; You must acquire it through your diet or supplements. Because red blood cells have a short lifespan, the body needs a constant supply of iron to rebuild hemoglobin.

forms of iron

Dietary iron can be either heme (from animal-based foods like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs) or non-heme (from plant-based foods like legumes, whole grains, spinach, dark chocolate, and fortified foods). Although non-heme iron is the more plentiful form in the diet, the body absorbs heme iron more easily. Therefore, you can increase iron levels more easily by consuming more heme iron from foods like steak, shellfish, lamb, and pork.

“People can improve their absorption of iron from plant foods by combining them with foods high in vitamin C, such as strawberries, citrus fruits, and dark green leafy vegetables like collards and broccoli,” notes Stefanski. That’s why research in the British Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate iron-fortified muesli with kiwi, which is particularly rich in vitamin C, were able to increase their iron levels.

Research also shows that fermentation can improve the bioavailability of nutrients in plant-based foods by reducing levels of compounds like phytates that can impede iron absorption. Tempeh, which is fermented soy, may be a better source of iron than unfermented tofu.

Certain grains in the millet family, including sorghum and teff, have been shown to help people increase their hemoglobin and serum ferritin levels, suggesting that some whole grains have higher iron levels than others, and perhaps more of us would benefit if they would consume a wider range of grains than just wheat or rice. And you can experiment sweetening food and drinks with molasses, which is surprisingly high in non-heme iron.

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Should You Take a Supplement?

If a blood test shows that you have insufficient levels of ferritin (ferritin is a blood cell protein that binds iron), you will most likely be directed by your doctor to take a dietary supplement to bring levels to the desired level. It is very difficult to correct a deficiency through diet alone. But since too much iron in the body can be just as problematic as too little iron, Stefanski explains that it’s important not to initiate supplementation without direction from a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

Humans have a limited ability to excrete excess iron, so excess amounts can build up in your organs and cause damage. You should know that unless you have a genetic predisposition to over-intake, a condition called hereditary hemochromatosis, it’s difficult to achieve iron overload through diet alone.

Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts and aims to provide readers with up-to-date, accurate information on health and nutrition in clear, concise English. Visit www.environmentalnutrition.com for more information.

(C)2022 Belvoir Media Group, LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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