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meat and fish and other iron-rich foods

Without iron, our red blood cells could not transport oxygen from our lungs to our cells throughout the body. Iron deficiency is most often associated with anemia, but it can cause problems long before it reaches that stage.

For example, a 2012 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that female athletes who had low blood levels of the iron-storing protein called ferritin had diminished energy levels, which compromised their training.

Less-than-optimal iron levels also directly affect the brain. Researchers at Penn State University found that women with even moderate iron deficiency scored more poorly on tests of memory, attention, and learning.

Reasons for Iron Deficiency:

Iron deficiency can be brought on by many different circumstances, including heavy menstruation, excess intake of processed foods, avoidance of red meats, and even regular participation in endurance sports.

A growing body of science also shows that obesity and inflammation (which usually go hand-in-hand) can raise levels of a hormone called hepcidin, which blocks proper iron absorption.

The recommended iron intake for adult women is 18 milligrams per day, and up to 27 milligrams during pregnancy. The daily quota for men is 8 milligrams. Cornell scientists have determined that about 16 percent of American women between 18 and 45 years old aren’t meeting their iron needs.

How to Get Enough Iron:

Iron supplementation can be tricky, so functional-medicine nutritionist Julie L. Starkel, MS, MBA, RDN, first recommends people get a blood test. If the test finds that ferritin levels are not low, Starkel suggests going the whole-foods route.

A note for vegetarians: Because non-heme iron, the form of iron found in plant-based whole foods like beans and lentils, is not as well absorbed as the heme iron (found in meat and fish), Starkel advises that eating these foods with “a source of vitamin C like fruits and vegetables significantly improves absorption rates.”

If the test reveals low levels of ferritin, it’s time to supplement. But, says Starkel: Excess iron is hard to eliminate, and too much of it can raise the risk for heart disease and other conditions.

Starkel recommends iron gluconate or iron glycinate supplements because they are less constipating, a common complaint among supplement users. She adds that it’s best not to take your iron alongside dairy or a calcium supplement because iron and calcium compete for digestion.

Starkel often prescribes 25 to 50 milligrams of iron daily for those with depleted stores, followed by another blood test in three months to gauge success.

This was excerpted from “5 Critical Nutrients and What Happens to Your Body When They’re Missing” which was published in Experience Life.

Photography by: Andrea Bricco; Food Styling by: Alicia Buszczak
Matthew Kadey

Matthew Kadey MSc, RD, is a dietitian and food and nutrition writer.

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