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It’s The Top Nutritional Disorder in The World - Do You Have It?

Iron deficiency is the most widespread nutritional disorder worldwide. Moreover, iron deficiency is the only nutritional deficiency that significantly affects both developing and industrialized countries. 1.5-2 billion people across the globe are affected by iron deficiency.

With such a wide range of iron-rich foods and iron supplements available, it is surprising that iron deficiency is such a pervasive problem. However, research over the past 50 years shows a connection between iron deficiency and several factors.

Poverty, lack of diversity in diet, and society moving away from meat-based diets to more processed foods and plant-based options contribute to iron deficiency. While more common in areas affected by poverty, iron deficiency does not discriminate between social classes.

 

What is Iron?

Iron is an essential mineral required for making hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is located in red blood cells, while myoglobin is found in muscles.

Hemoglobin is the protein responsible for carrying oxygen to all the body’s organs and tissues. It then transports carbon dioxide from your organs and tissues back to your lungs.

If your body is experiencing an iron deficiency, there will not be enough red blood cells to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide to the necessary locations. Therefore, the most noticeable side effect of experiencing low iron levels is fatigue.

 

7 Signs of Iron Deficiency

  • Fatigue
  • Irregular Heartbeat
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Weakness
  • Pale or yellow-toned skin
  • Craving and chewing ice

 

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Fatigue, dizziness, and bodily weakness related to iron deficiency can significantly impact your exercise routine. Unlike general feelings of sleepiness, fatigue from iron deficiency comes with a lack of motivation.

What you put into your body is the fuel that helps you reach your goals. For example, iron-rich foods and iron supplements can aid in getting your body and mind ready to train and compete.

 

What is Anemia?

Anemia is a condition that occurs when you don't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body's tissues. Anemia's signs and symptoms can vary depending on which type of anemia you have and how severe your case is.

 

3 Main Causes of Anemia:

  • Blood loss
  • Low red blood cell production
  • High rates of red blood cell destruction

 

What is Iron-Deficiency Anemia?

Iron deficiency is caused by a lack of iron in the body, and anemia is caused by a lack of hemoglobin in the body. However, iron-deficiency anemia happens when a person is both iron and hemoglobin deficient.

 

Other Nutrient Deficiencies That Can Cause Anemia

A B-12 or folic acid deficiency can lead to another type of anemia called megaloblastic anemia. Megaloblastic anemia happens when the red blood cells do not develop normally and instead are large and oval-shaped. Healthy red blood cells are round, not oval. So, when the bone marrow begins to produce these abnormal blood cells, it leads to fewer red blood cells overall.

 

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Who is Most at Risk for Iron-Deficiency Anemia?

Iron deficiency affects all ages and genders, but it's no surprise that women who are menstruating are part of the highest risk group for a blood-related deficiency and are most likely to need iron supplements.

 

Groups Most at Risk for Iron-Deficiency Anemia:

  • Endurance athletes
  • Vegetarians
  • Pregnant women
  • Menstruating women
  • Children
  • The elderly
  • People with chronic kidney failure

 

Athletes and Iron Deficiency

While athletes tend to eat a healthier diet that contains more iron-rich foods, they are at a higher risk for anemia than other groups of people. As a result, some athletes work with their physicians to determine if iron supplements should be added to their routine.

Athletes lose iron from heavy sweating. In addition, exercise is associated with increased blood loss in the urine and gastrointestinal tract.

Hemolysis is the destruction of red blood cells, and long-distance running is connected with a condition called “foot strike” hemolysis. Training that involves running, causing the foot to strike the ground repeatedly, can lead to ruptured blood cells in the soles of the feet. Anemia caused by this method is often called "runners’ anemia."

Maintaining a diet high in iron-rich foods and iron supplements can work to fend off potential runner’s anemia. First, however, athletes should consult with their physician to verify if they are anemic, at risk for anemia, and if they should take iron supplements for treatment.

 

Vegetarians and Iron Deficiency

Vegetarians are at a higher risk for iron deficiency. However, paying attention to the types of iron-rich foods you eat and using necessary iron supplements can prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

Iron-rich foods that are the easiest to absorb contain heme iron and are only found in meat. There are plenty of iron-rich vegetarian options, but they contain non-heme iron, which is harder to absorb and requires assistance.

 

Types of Iron in Food

The food we eat contains one or both of two types of naturally occurring iron:

  • Heme iron
  • Non-heme iron

 

Heme iron is the most easily absorbed by our bodies. For this reason, it is the most common source of iron-rich foods in our diets. But unfortunately, heme iron is only found in animal proteins.

Non-heme iron is mostly in plant-based proteins like grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Non-heme iron can also be found in animal protein. Since animals eat plants with non-heme iron, nearly half of the iron in animal meat is non-heme.

Between 25-30% of heme iron is absorbed, while only 5-15% of non-heme iron is absorbed from our diet. Therefore, having an iron-rich food diet that is primarily non-heme iron can directly correlate to an iron deficiency.

 

Animal Protein That Contains Non-Heme Iron

  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Dairy

 

The American Red Cross put together an extensive list of iron-rich foods. Incorporating plenty of these iron-rich food options into your diet is a great way to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. In addition, these iron-rich foods will also benefit your red blood cells, potentially negating the need for iron supplements.

 

9 Iron-Rich Foods

  • Spinach
  • Breakfast cereals enriched with iron
  • Cooked oysters
  • Dark chocolate
  • Tofu
  • Beans
  • Strawberries
  • Raisins
  • Whole wheat bread

 

Iron deficiency should not be a massive epidemic with an abundance of iron-rich foods readily available. However, when it comes to non-heme iron-rich food options, our body needs help absorbing the non-heme iron.

Limited policies are in place to ensure foods are enriched with iron. In addition, there is a lack of education surrounding the two types of iron and how they work within our bodies. With lack of information comes a lack of awareness of dietary and possible iron supplemental needs.

Many consumers are not aware that a healthy plant-based diet will possibly need iron supplements and additional supplements to meet all their dietary needs. Eating iron-rich foods independently may not be enough to provide all the iron your body needs.

 

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Supplements And Nutrients to Help Absorb Non-Heme Iron-Rich Foods

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry

 

Consuming vitamin C while eating non-heme iron-rich foods helps the body better absorb the non-heme iron. For example, research out of Ohio Northern University indicates a four times increase in non-heme iron absorption when ingested with 25-100 mg of vitamin C.

These benefits were garnered by studying both vitamin C foods and vitamin C supplements. In addition, vitamin C with added iron supplements can have a significant impact on preventing iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia.

 

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Recommended Iron Needs by Age and Gender

  • Boys between 7 months and 18 years - 7-11 mg daily
  • Girls between 7 months and 18 years - 7-15 mg daily
  • Men - 8 mg daily
  • Women - 18 mg daily
  • Pregnant women - 27 mg daily
  • Lactating women - 9 mg daily
  • Women over 50 - 8 mg daily

 

The iron needs of boys and men generally stay consistent. The iron needs of girls and women fluctuate by age and if they are pregnant or nursing. With fluctuating iron needs comes an increase in the possible need for iron supplements.

 

Foods That Hinder Iron Absorption

There are some food and drink options that can hinder iron absorption, so make sure you’re not beefing up on iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements at the same time as you’re enjoying the following ingredients:

 

3 Ingredients That Can Contribute to Iron Deficiency

  • Phytates or phytic acid
  • Calcium-rich foods
  • Polyphenols

 

Phytates or Phytic Acid and Iron Absorption

Phytates or phytic acid naturally occurs in plant seeds, legumes, unprocessed whole grains, and nuts. Phytic acid is a powerful inhibitor of iron, zinc, and calcium absorption.

They are often referred to as "anti-nutrients" since they actively prevent the absorption of necessary minerals in our body, which can lead to an iron deficiency. While plant-based foods are high in phytic acid, the effects of absorption prevention only occur during ingestion.

When you snack on seeds or nuts, the iron, zinc, and calcium absorption will only be affected while you are eating. When you sit down to eat a meal later in the day, the effects of phytic acid will have dissipated.

 

Long Term Effects of Phytic Acid and Iron Supplements

Long-term phytic acid intake throughout the day can negatively impact your health without intervention from iron supplements. However, if you have a diet high in phytic acid, you can offset it with zinc, calcium, or iron supplements.

Iron deficiency affects one-third of the world's population, while zinc deficiency affects 30% of the population. However, mineral-absorbing foods like garlic and onion can increase the absorption of both iron and zinc.

A 2010 study researched the correlation between garlic and onion in regard to iron and zinc absorption when it was added to grains. It showed an incredible increase of iron absorption that ranged from 9.4-65.9%.

 

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Calcium-Rich Foods and Iron Absorption

Like iron, calcium is an essential mineral. It is also the only known substance that prohibits the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron.

Calcium is less than 50 mg increments has little to no effect on iron absorption. However, calcium in 300-600 mg installments can impact both heme and non-heme iron absorption. Calcium’s impact regarding non-heme iron absorption is why health care providers typically recommend taking calcium supplements at night.

Calcium as part of a well-rounded, iron-rich diet typically has less impact on blocking iron absorption. Abiding by the recommended calcium intake levels does not show a direct correlation between iron deficiency and anemia in healthy adults.

 

Polyphenols and Iron Absorption

A 2010 study found that, similar to the effects of calcium-rich foods, the timing of the polyphenol consumption played a more significant role than the amount consumed.

While foods containing polyphenols can prevent iron absorption, these foods and beverages do not need to be eliminated from your diet. On the contrary, polyphenol-rich foods are associated with health benefits ranging from regulating blood pressure and reducing chronic inflammation to managing blood sugar levels.

Many foods that are part of a healthy, well-rounded diet contain polyphenols.

 

9 Food and Beverages Containing Polyphenols

  • Berries
  • Herbs
  • Cocoa powder
  • Nuts
  • Flaxseed
  • Vegetables
  • Olives
  • Coffee
  • Tea

 

A study published in the Journal of Food Science in 2011 found an exciting discovery for offsetting the effect polyphenols had on iron absorption.

Ascorbic acids can offset or reverse the inhibiting effects of polyphenols in certain conditions. For example, in lower concentrations of less than 4.6 mg/L, the polyphenol's negative impact on iron absorption can not only be prevented but reversed with ascorbic acid.

Ascorbic acid is part of the antioxidant family and is most commonly known as vitamin C.

 

Vitamin C and Iron Absorption

Vitamin C is one of the more well-known vitamins, and most people can name at least one food known for high vitamin C levels. Vitamin C has the ever-important role of growing, developing, and repairing all body tissues.

 

What Does Vitamin C Aid In?

  • Iron absorption
  • Red blood cell formation
  • Collagen Formation
  • Proper function of the immune system
  • Wound healing
  • Maintenance of bones, teeth, and cartilage

 

Vitamin C is an excellent source for treating iron deficiency and anemia. Many vitamin C supplements also contain iron supplements to work together to create healthy red blood cells.

 

Iron-Rich Foods Paired with Iron Supplements can Prevent Iron Deficiency

Our bodies have different needs. Therefore, listening to your body’s cues is key to understanding how to better ourselves.

Increasing the amount of iron-rich foods in your diet or adding vitamin C or iron supplements could be instrumental in creating better conditions for you to succeed in your fitness goals.

Fatigue, lack of motivation, and dizziness are all signs that our body is not functioning correctly. Work with your trainer or physician to determine what lifestyle changes, supplements, or dietary needs can help you reach your maximum potential.

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