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The Importance of Iron

Charlyn Fargo on

The Importance of Iron

I see quite a few patients who are low in iron. Without adequate iron, they feel fatigued and lacking in energy, with impaired brain function and a weakened immune system.

They're not alone. Iron deficiency is on the upswing, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of Nutrition. The study found that since 1999 the rates of individuals treated for severe anemia and of related fatalities have risen. Untreated long-term iron deficiency can contribute to heart disease and even death from cardiovascular disease.

Researchers attribute the rise in iron deficiency to simply a drop in iron intake -- less red meat intake and more plant-based foods. The form of iron in plants is not as bioavailable to us as is the iron in animal-based foods. In addition, certain natural parts of plants (phytates and tannins) can bind with iron and limit how much is absorbed by the body. Certain medical conditions can also result in iron deficiency.

Adequate iron is needed to produce hemoglobin and myoglobin, essential parts of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. The recommended amount for men ages 19-50 is 8 milligrams per day, and 18 milligrams of iron a day is recommended for pre-menopausal women, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Best sources of heme (animal-based iron) include meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Best sources of non-heme (from plant-based foods) include legumes, whole grains, spinach, dark chocolate and fortified foods.

 

You can improve absorption of iron from plant foods by pairing them with foods high in vitamin C -- adding strawberries or orange slices to your spinach salad or blueberries and kiwi slices to iron-fortified cereal. Some whole grains are higher in iron than others. Farina is a good source of plant-based iron that can be topped with your favorite berries.

Q and A

Q: I read that eating vegetables can help prevent liver cancer. Is that true?

A: Eating more vegetables is linked with a significant reduction in the risk of developing liver cancer, according to a study published by the American Association for Cancer Research. Researchers looked at data from 470,000 people ages 50-71 over 15 years. Those who ate 3 cups of vegetables daily were a third less likely to develop liver cancer vs those who consumed 1 cup of vegetables daily. A 1 cup increase in daily intake was linked with a 20% decreased risk of liver cancer and chronic liver mortality.

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