Even Ironman needs iron…

We all need iron in our diet, but too much can be unhealthy.  Here’s what you need to know.

I could live my whole life without this kind of iron

The components of blood all work together to keep you going, but it’s the red blood cells, in my humble opinion, that are the true “super cells”.  When red blood cells don’t work, it affects every system in your body.  Your red blood cells slacking on the job is called anemia. What would make these super-cells slump?  Two reasons are chemotherapy and radiation, as chemo attacks healthy red blood cells and radiation attacks the factory (bone marrow) where the red blood cells are made. (Damn treatments.)

Another cause of anemia is low iron.

Iron is necessary for the production of the oxygen carrying part of red cells.  Low iron = low oxygen = one tired, lazy, depressed person.

It is especially important for those undergoing treatment for cancer,  those who just had surgery, or those women who have long intense menstrual cycles, to eat a balanced diet high in iron rich foods to top-off your iron stores.

And…um… no, I won’t tell you to eat liver.

The general population equates “meat” with “high iron” foods.  But iron is present in countless numbers of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and legumes as well. In fact, 1 cup of oatmeal has more iron (10 mg/cup) than 3 oz of beef liver (7.5 mg). Which would you rather have for breakfast?

Animal-based foods and plant-based foods contain different kinds of iron.  Animal iron is called HEME iron while plant based is NON-HEME iron.  HEME iron is absorbed in a higher percentage than NON-HEME, so you don’t need as much of it to meet the daily requirements.  That can be good AND bad, as iron is recycled from old red blood cells, stored in your body, and is slowly excreted in the feces.  If your diet is poor and your bowels are bound up, you may not be able to excrete iron properly.  Too much iron causes “oxidation” or cell death, leading to heart disease, liver disease and cancer.  (one study showed that 88% of metastasized breast cancer patients had elevated iron levels.) In today’s society we are seeing more iron overload issues than iron deficiencies among meat eaters. (symptoms can include heart palpitations, joint pain and fatigue)

Plant-based foods, on the other hand, contain NON-HEME iron.  A smaller percentage of the iron you eat is absorbed with NON-HEME, but if you are eating a well-balanced, 5 fruit/veggie serving a day diet, you will get all of your iron without the iron overload.  You can also increase your absorption of NON-HEME iron by cooking in cast iron (a much healthier alternative to toxic Teflon), and including foods high in Vitamin C like citrus, berries, and peppers with the meal, (Throw some mandarin oranges and red peppers…Hi-C, into your spinach salad…Hi-Iron!)

Just for comparison sake:

3.0 oz beef tenderloin = 3.0 mg iron, 3.0 oz chicken breast = 1.1 mg iron

1 cup boiled black beans = 3.6 mg iron, 1 cup lentils = 6.6 mg iron, 1 cup cooked spinach = 5.0 mg iron, 2 oz pumpkin seeds = 8.4 mg iron (I could go on for days……..)

Daily requirement of iron for women not pregnant or lactating is 18 mg/day.    Over age 51? Cut that in half as older (I said old-er… not old) women don’t excrete iron as fast as younger women do.  Men only require 8 mg/day even over age 51.

Some other foods that will help you keep your stores at the proper level are almonds, whole grain bread, peas, all beans, kale, apricots, dates and many more.

Iron is important, but understanding how and where you get it can make the difference between being healthy and unhealthy.

Note: Don’t ever take iron pills or vitamins containing iron unless you have had your blood levels checked for deficiency.

For more specific info about iron check out these websites and blogs:

Iron and cancer

CDC site on iron

Iron info from University of Illinois

Categories: diet, health, healthy diet, nutrition

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I have a cast iron pan. I need to pull it out and use it more often… It is true that knowing how and where we should get iron from make a difference. I don’t want to be one tired, lazy, depressed person…

  2. The other day I realized that pate is liver (though I’ve know this all my life, I’d never REALIZED it before), and liver is a great source of iron. When people say to eat that meat, I get flashbacks of my father’s meals where he fried liver in a pan and served it with onions. Horrible. It’s great to know about the alternatives. Thanks for this post!


  3. Thanks for clearing that up! Now I’m wondering if cooked spinach provides more iron than raw? Also, I have read (somewhere on the interweb) that lower iron levels are a benefit if your cholesterol levels are elevated. Can you confirm?

    • Not sure about that, but there are many studies, one from the Framingham Heart Study (one of the largest ever conducted) that shows a link between high serum iron levels and higher incidence of cancer.

      Cooking spinach allows you to eat more (3 cups of raw can cook down to 1/2 cup…talk about shrinkage!) so in theory you would get more. But please don’t boil it unless you plan to drink the pretty green water.

So whaddya think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: