Why is iron so crucial to our bodies? "We need adequate iron to produce hemoglobin and myoglobin, an essential part of red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body," says Julie Stefanski, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
Iron Deficiency on the RiseKnowing this, it's concerning that recent research suggests iron deficiency is on the upswing in the U.S. A 2021 study in The Journal of Nutrition discovered that the rate of iron deficiency among Americans has been rising since 1999 as has the rates of individuals treated for severe anemia and fatalities attributed to iron deficiency anemia. Untreated long-term iron deficiency can contribute to heart disease and death from cardiovascular disease.
Why the shortfall? The researchers attribute this largely to a drop in iron intake: a 9.5% decrease in females and a 6.6% decrease in males between 1999 and 2018. During the nearly two-decade study period, average beef intake decreased while there was a rise in chicken consumption which provides less iron. Also, using USDA nutrition numbers from dozens of foods, it was determined that there was a drop in iron levels in 62% of both animal and plant-based foods analyzed which might be the result of changes in agricultural practices.
And as more people switch to plant-based eating, Stefanski says the risk for poor iron status may rise -- "the form of iron in plants is not as bioavailable to us as is the iron in animal-based foods, and certain natural parts of plants known as phytates and tannins can bind with iron and limit how much is absorbed by the body."
Get What You NeedThe Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends that men aged 19-50 consume eight milligrams (mg) of iron per day and premenopausal women consume 18 mg of iron per day. After menopause, women's iron needs drop to the same level as men's: eight mg per day.
Forms of IronDietary iron can be either heme (from animal-based foods including meat, poultry, fish, and eggs) or nonheme (from plant-based foods like legumes, whole grains, spinach, dark chocolate and fortified foods). Although nonheme iron is the more abundant form in the food supply, the body more readily absorbs heme iron. Therefore, you can more easily increase iron levels by consuming more heme iron from foods such as steak, shellfish, lamb and pork.
"People can improve their absorption of iron from plant foods by pairing them with foods high in vitamin C such as strawberries, citrus fruits, and dark green leafy vegetables like collard greens and broccoli," notes Stefanski. That's why an investigation in the British Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate iron-fortified cereal with kiwi fruit, which is especially rich in vitamin C, were able to raise their iron levels.
Also, research shows that fermentation can improve the nutrient bioavailability of plant foods by reducing levels of compounds like phytates that can hinder iron absorption. So, tempeh, which is fermented soy, could be a better source of iron than non-fermented tofu.
Should You Take a Supplement?If a blood test reveals you have an inadequate ferritin count (ferritin is a blood cell protein that binds with iron), you'll most likely be instructed by your physician to take a supplement to get levels up to where they should be. It is very challenging to overcome a deficiency through diet alone. But since having too much iron in the body can be just as problematic as not having enough, Stefanski explains that it's important to not initiate supplementation without instruction from a knowledgeable health care provider.
Humans have a limited capacity to eliminate excess iron, so excess levels can build up in your organs and cause damage. You should know that it is difficult for iron overload to occur from diet alone unless you have a genetic propensity to absorb too much, a condition called hereditary hemochromatosis.
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