You might have thought I was going to talk about going to the gym and pumping iron or maybe how you get wrinkles out of clothing or even iron ore. But those are different types of iron deficiency than we are addressing today.
Getting enough iron, the type your body uses to make red blood cells and carry oxygen around, isn’t typically a problem for men or post menopause women. But for one in five women of child bearing age, fifty percent of women who are pregnant and growing children, it is something to think about. It is most prevalent for low income women and children, likely due to their lack of access to healthy food options.
Your body doesn’t go from having enough iron to being deficient overnight. Like most resources, your body has a stored supply it uses. When those stores dip, you absorb iron through your intestines. When your stores are full, your body should stop absorbing (why that’s not always the case in a moment). However, if you aren’t eating foods with iron in them, there won’t be anything for your body to absorb. That will cause a depletion over time and eventually deficiency.
Symptoms of deficiency include feeling tired, weak and irritable. Clearly those aren’t very specific symptoms and could be caused by anything. But if you are experiencing them, adding plant-based iron sources can’t hurt you.
There are two types of iron – heme iron found in blood and non-heme iron found in plants and when cooking in a cast iron pan. Heme iron is often touted as being “easier to absorb.” Which is true in that it is harder for your body to regulate how much heme iron it absorbs. If you are ingesting blood through the meat of land animals or fish, your body can end up absorbing more iron than it needs.
Unfortunately, there is no way for your body to rid itself of extra iron so you are stuck with it until you use it. The condition of too much iron in the blood is called Hemochromatosis. And unfortunately has similar symptoms as too little iron, including chronic fatigue, but also more severe problems like heart attack and heart failure.
On the other hand, non-heme iron is easier for your body to regulate. It only absorbs it when you need it. If you want to make sure non-heme iron is as bioavailable as possible, eat foods rich in iron (listed below) along with a source of Vitamin C (citrus and peppers come to mind). You may also want to avoid drinking tea with your meals as the tannins can make it harder to absorb iron.
Here are a few foods you can add to your diet if you are concerned about offering your body enough iron: lentils, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds (we eat three out of four of those seeds every morning in our oatmeal), pine nuts, cashews, almonds, macadamias, dark green leafy veggies like kale, spinach and Swiss chard and our favorite – oatmeal!
Add a few of these foods to your daily intake and you should have no worries on the iron front (typing that made me laugh).
We are not experts in child nutrition. But in my research for this article I came across this in a 1998 report from the CDC: “Early introduction (i.e., before age 1 year) of whole cow's milk and consumption of greater than 24 oz of whole cow's milk daily after the 1st year of life are risk factors for iron deficiency because this milk has little iron, may replace foods with higher iron content, and may cause occult gastrointestinal bleeding.” Something to be aware of if you have children."
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Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.