Iron is a nutrient essential for transporting oxygen from the blood to the body. For generations, Americans have been advised to eat a certain way to avoid developing iron deficiency anemia. But today, this emphasis on iron consumption has created the risk of an even more dangerous condition: iron overload.
Eradicating iron deficiency
Iron is a key component of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout the body; and myoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen further into the muscles. Various other biochemical reactions in the body also depend on iron. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, chills, dizzyness, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and a weakened immune system.
Historically, the U.S. diet has lacked healthy levels of iron, especially for kids. So much so that today baby foods, infant formula and many other foods such as breakfast cereals, breads, rice and pasta are fortified with iron. Now the condition is rare. Except for people on meds that cause internal bleeding or interfere with iron absorption, iron deficiency anemia occurs most often in breastfeeding infants, kids who drink too much milk, menstruating and pregnant women and vegans.
Iron overload and hemocromatosis
With the increased availability of iron in the Western diet, the opposite problem is emerging. A growing number of people are suffering from iron overload. Too much iron can accumulate in the body over time, leading to damaged internal organs and increased risk of diabetes, heart attack and cancer. People with hereditary hemocromotosis are particularly vulnerable.
Researchers conducting the Framingham Heart Study, a study tracking the health of individuals since 1948 found that just 3 percent of more than 1,000 people age 67-96 were iron deficient. Thirteen percent had iron overload. Subjects with the highest levels of iron consumed red meat at least four times a week, took iron supplements or ate more than 21 servings of fruit a week.
The body’s iron cycle
The body’s normally controls it’s iron content at three to four grams. One milligram of iron is lost daily from sweat and cells that are shed from the skin and the inner lining of the intestines. Normally the intestines absorb one mg of iron daily from food to replace the lost iron. When more iron is lost, more iron is absorbed from food.
The body stores excess iron. For people with hemocromatosis, a condition that increases iron absorption, iron gradually builds up in the organs. By the time the condition is diagnosed later in life, complications can be serious. Living for years with chronic fatigue and ill health can eventually lead to liver failure.
Donate blood, eat more chicken
When hemocromatosis is diagnosed earlier, treatment can prevent the dangerous build-up of iron in the body. The most effective way to manage the condition is quarterly venesection (removal of blood).
Even people without hemocromatosis can suffer complications from iron overload, especially an increased risk of diabetes. However, studies have shown that people with high levels of stored iron who donate blood regularly reduce their insulin sensitivity and diabetes risk.
The Framingham Heart Study researchers concluded that eating a Western diet is more likely to result in iron overload, rather than iron deficiency. A healthy low-fat diet, light on red meat and without iron supplementation is probably the best avoidance strategy. Plus, a regular trip to the plasma center.