Four Ways to Pump up Your Iron Intake

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I don’t think you guys understand how hard it is to pull myself away from nonstop video game playing (I’m on summer break after all, don’t judge me) and write an article about iron deficiency. But I’m going to force myself to do it because I CARE ABOUT Y’ALL.

Why is it important for me to do this? Well, because the second most common nutrient deficiency in the U.S. is iron. This is extremely odd when you think about it, since the best source of iron is animal protein. And we all know how much ‘Muricans love their animal proteins!

Hamburger Steak Steakhouse meat red meat bayonne ham prosciutto capicola

Why should you care about getting enough iron? Well, let me ask you this…do you like oxygen? I’ll get into more details below, but first…for my impatient readers…

Short Attention Span Sum up

  • Iron deficiency=BAD.
  • Menstruating and pregnant women, infants and children, vegans and vegetarians are at highest risk for deficiency.
  • Nutrients can compete with or inhibit iron absorption such as calcium, zinc, tannins, oxalates, and phytates while others, such as vitamin C, help your body to absorb iron.
  • The Four Strategies:
    • Eat high iron foods (duh)
    • Eat high iron foods with high vitamin C foods
    • Reduce consumption of foods high in calcium, oxalates, phytates, and tannins, and replace zinc supplements with foods naturally high in both zinc and iron.
    • Cook in a cast iron skillet.

What is iron’s story and why do we need it?

Iron is a whee little mineral that is a part of an extremely important protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in RBCs (remember, red blood cells), which binds oxygen and allows RBCs to deliver it throughout the body. I don’t know if you guys know this, but we kinda need oxygen to survive.

If you’re low on iron, this beautiful friendship is not as strong. Therefore, oxygen can’t bind to RBCs and oxygen isn’t delivered as well to the body. Everything in our body requires oxygen to function properly, so this can cause a lot of problems. Believe me when I say preventing an iron deficiency is EXTREMELY important!

Because iron is so important to your survival, the body intelligently stores it in your liver for many moons, which means that it may take a while for you to develop a deficiency. It is also why animal liver is one of the best sources of iron!

Symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale skin
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath
  • Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Inflammation or soreness of the tongue
  • Brittle nails
  • Weirdo cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch (also known as Pica)
  • Poor appetite, especially in infants and children
This guy needs a steak and a glass of OJ ASAP.

It is also important to understand the types of iron before we move forward. From food sources, there are two main types: Heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in blood and muscle, so our best dietary source mostly comes from animal proteins. Non-heme iron is found in plants and is not as quickly and easily absorbed as heme iron.

Throw the perfect combo of heme and nonheme iron on the grill folks!

Who is at risk?

Women and children

So there is this pesky little inconvenience women go through every month called menstruation. When they lose blood, they’re also losing iron. If they’re not getting enough iron from the diet, they can develop a deficiency.

There is also this other pesky little inconvenience women may go through called pregnancy. This is when a woman grows a new human in her uterus that sucks all the iron out of her system like a wee vampire. This can cause a pregnant woman to become deficient in iron. If mom is deficient, baby can be born deficient as well.

Scariest image I’ve ever made…

Healthy babies are born with an estimated 4-6 months worth of stored iron, which they stole from poor mom. This is why complementary foods are recommended to be given at around 6 months of age to ensure baby is getting a dietary source of iron.

However, if mom was deficient during her pregnancy, the baby may be born with low iron stores in the liver. Unfortunately, breastmilk contains very low amounts of iron, so if baby isn’t given supplements or formula, he/she may suffer from iron deficiency. If a healthy infant isn’t introduced to foods containing iron around six months of age, they may also develop a deficiency.

Vegans and vegetarians

As mentioned before, the absolute best source of iron is from animal protein. If a person is avoiding animal proteins because of moral reasons or personal preference and not replacing with plant sources or iron or supplements, they may become deficient in iron. Obviously, this is can be the case with vegans and vegetarians.

Vegan sushi makes me sad. 🙁

People with malabsorption issues

Malabsorption occurs when the small intestine is prevented from taking in nutrients efficiently (for example, iron) from your food. Because the small intestine can’t absorb the nutrients, they aren’t delivered to the rest of your body and a deficiency can develop.

This can occur in people who have:

  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Prolonged use of antibiotics
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy or radiation treatments

Competing nutrients is a BIGGIE

Lastly, let’s chat about calcium, zinc, phytates, oxalates, and tannins. All of these guys have the ability to decrease iron absorption.

Calcium

When I worked for a program called The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), children were often found to be low in iron. The first question I would ask was, “how much milk, yogurt, and/or cheese is little Billy consuming?” I’m not exaggerating when I say that 85% of the time, little Billy was consuming WAY too much dairy.

STOP DRINKING ALL OUR MILK BILLY. JEEZ.

The current recommendation is that children 1-5 years old should consume no more than two cups of dairy per day. That could be one 8 oz cup of milk and 1.5 oz of cheese. These children were sometimes consuming four huge bottles of milk, two Danimals (these are super popular sugary yogurts apparently), and lots of cheese in one day.

Image result for danimals
MONKEYS DON’T DRINK YOGURT. That’s a monkey isn’t it???

My theory as to why Americans are deficient in iron: Even though they loves their meats, they actually love their dairy even more.

Zinc

As mentioned, zinc can compete with iron. I don’t believe Americans are getting too much zinc from their diet, considering that foods highest in zinc are unpopular items such as oysters. However, many studies reported zinc supporting immunity so now people are popping zinc supplements like they’re candy. Next time you have a cold, check out how many cold remedies now contain zinc!

Image result for emergen c zinc

Plant stuffs

Certain plant compounds such as oxalates, tannins, and phytates can also block iron absorption and are found in plant sources such as cocoa (chocolate), wine, coffee, tea, grains, beans, and spinach. These guys can bind to iron, keeping the body from absorbing it properly. If you have a friend who is tired all the time, looks kinda pale, and also drinks a TON of coffee, wine, and eats a bunch of chocolate…there may be an iron deficiency occurring here. Or they’re just a goth.

Image result for goth
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p051m0c8

Genetics

Certain genetic mutations can occur and be passed down from generation to generation. So if your ma or pa have an iron deficiency unrelated to diet, you may want to get tested. People with a genetic iron deficiency may need to be on prescriptive iron supplements and should seek out a dietitian to support their body with foods.

Four strategies to increase iron stores

Step 1: Consume foods high in iron

Duh, right? But what foods are highest in iron? Meat, meat, meat, animals, liver. The highest and easiest-to-absorb forms of iron come from:

  • Liver
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
A nice liver pâté anyone?

But don’t be afraid my vegetarian/vegan pals! There are other ways to get iron in your body that don’t include animal proteins. However, you have to consume higher amounts from plant sources because the iron isn’t absorbed as well.

For example, you may absorb 75% of the iron from liver, but only absorb 10-20% of iron from spinach. In addition, a lot of these foods naturally contain phytochemicals and compounds that inhibit iron absorption, so there’s that:

  • Fortified cereals and grains
  • Dried apricots (I know, I was shocked too)
  • White beans, or beans in general
  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Spinach
  • Quinoa
  • Mushrooms

Step 2: Eat foods high in vitamin C with foods high in iron

As mentioned before, vitamin C can help you to absorb iron better. How does it do this? Well, it’s chemistry and I’m sure you guys don’t want to hear it. Just know it converts an unabsorbable form of iron into an absorbable form. Foods highest in vitamin C are:

  • Bell peppers are the tops! Take that oranges!
  • Kiwi
  • Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries
  • Oranges
  • Papaya
  • Brocolli
  • Tomatoes
  • Kale
The perfect iron combo! Lolol…

If you eat a sandwich with meat in it, throw some tomatoes on it or have fruit on the side. Munch on bell peppers with hummus! If you take a multivitamin, iron supplement, or prenatal vitamin, eat some fruit with it! Throw broccoli in with your bolognese pasta! These are all perfect ways to help your body absorb more iron.

Step 3: Reduce consumption of calcium, zinc, oxalates, phytates, and tannins

Dairy is generally agreed upon as being good for you, though there are arguments about how good and whether you should consume whole, low, or nonfat types. So I’m not going to say cut it out altogether. Just be mindful as to how much you’re consuming. USDA recommendations are:

  • 2 cups per day for children 1-5 years-old
  • 2.5 cups per day for children up to 9 years-old
  • 3 cups per day for everyone else

Examples are one 8 oz cup milk, a 6-8 oz serving of yogurt (preferably no sugar added), or 1.5 ounces of cheese. If you simply MUST have a ton of dairy, be mindful of when you’re eating it. For instance, eat yogurt as a snack between meals to avoid eating it with a meal high in iron. Don’t drink a huge glass of milk with your steak dinner!

Most people aren’t going to have an issue with consuming too many foods high in zinc. However, instead of taking supplements, which may interfere with iron absorption, eat foods naturally high in zinc and iron!

  • Oysters
  • Beef, chicken, pork chops
  • Tofu
  • Hemp seeds
  • Lentils
  • Oatmeal

Lastly, don’t drink so much dang coffee and tea! Eat no more than one ounce of chocolate per day, or, how about not eating chocolate every day? I know that’s hard for some of you, but oxygen delivery to your organs is more important!

What British people’s cups look like.

Foods high in oxalates and phytates can also have a lot of nutrients that are good for you, so you don’t want to remove these foods completely. Continue to eat, but be mindful of how much you’re eating, of the following:

  • Grains (sprouted grains have lower levels of phytates)
  • Beans (a couple of studies showed that cooking beans in an Instant pot reduced phytates)
  • Nuts
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
  • Beets
  • Wine
  • Coffee
  • Tea

Step 4: Cook in a cast iron skillet

This might sound kinda odd, but cooking on a cast iron skillet can add a significant amount of iron into your foods! You can get one for only $14.90 on Amazon (this is actually the one I use). So if you hate all the foods previously mentioned, get yourself one of these bad boys and get cooking. Many chefs swear that cast iron skillets are the best pans in the universe because they heat more evenly, you can use them in the oven safely, and they’re naturally nonstick.

The only problem with cast iron skillets is that you can’t treat them like your other cheapie pans. People who are used to caring for these skillets will tell you it’s easy peasy, where I disagree. Plus they’re pretty heavy. Learn how to care for cast iron skillets by clicking here.

Pump it Up!

Overall, people who aren’t deficient in iron won’t have to worry about utilizing any of these strategies. However, if you ARE deficient, try out some of these tips and see how it goes! Keep checking in with your doctor to monitor your iron status as you attempt these. Good luck at pumping up your iron!