Iron

Iron deficiency results in anaemia and fatigue. This provides a great marketing opportunity for iron supplements as no one wants to feel weak and exhausted all the time. While it is true that correcting proven iron deficiency with iron supplements will make you feel better, taking even more iron will not give you more energy. Your body maintains a store of iron and this can be measured with a blood test. Bigger iron stores are not better – how much iron you have in reserve makes no difference to blood haemoglobin (and other iron containing proteins) until you actually run out of iron. It’s a bit like a car fuel tank – the amount of fuel in the tank makes no difference to the engine as long as it does not run dry.

Too much iron in the body is harmful. And we are not just referring to severe iron overload diseases such as hereditary haemochromatosis in which iron deposition results in damage to organs such as the heart and liver. Even within the “normal” range of iron stores there is an increase in cancer, heart disease and dementia as blood levels increase. Iron becomes a pro-oxidant at higher levels – causing oxidative damage within the body. Iron supplements also inhibit the absorption of other minerals such as zinc.

Iron supplements are useful for the rapid reversal of proven iron deficiency. Increasing the intake of iron rich whole plant foods will then maintain iron levels in all but the most severe bleeding disorders (which should be treated!). See Risk Associated With Iron Supplements

Most Australian health professionals equate dietary iron with red meat. Regular advertising from the meat industry reinforces this view. Chicken and fish have smaller amounts of haeme iron. Meat provides iron in the form of “haeme iron” which is a large organic molecule with four atoms of elemental iron at its core. The good thing about haeme iron is that it is very well absorbed from the gut and the bad thing about haeme iron is that the gut is unable to down regulate its absorption, even when there is too much in the body. This can result in iron overload. Red meat is not the only source of iron: the majority of dietary iron comes from the plants that we eat, even on the usual meat-rich Australian diet. A whole foods plant based diet actually provides a lot more iron than the usual Australian diet. This iron is present as elemental iron salts rather than haeme iron.

There is a persistent myth that plant sources of iron are very poorly absorbed and that vegetarians are likely to become iron deficient. However, iron deficiency does not seem to be more common in vegetarians, despite the fact that most are lacto-ovo vegetarians (dairy foods are a very poor source of iron). The good thing about the non-haeme form of iron found in plants is that the intestine can regulate how much of the iron is absorbed to ensure adequate stores but avoid iron overload. If the body is depleted of iron then the absorption can be nearly as good as for haeme iron but when the body is “fully charged” with iron absorption is very low. This is the only way that our bodies can maintain the right amount of iron as once absorbed, there is no mechanism to excrete it.

The big issue with plant sources of iron is around factors that inhibit iron absorption. Plant foods contain some substances that are promoters of iron absorption and other substances that are inhibitors of iron absorption. The inhibitors include tannins in tea, dairy foods and the phytates in whole grains (phytates are good for you in other ways which illustrates the complexity of nutrition). The promoters of iron absorption include vitamin C and other substances in vegetables including those in onion and garlic. A study in International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition compared the competing effects of inhibitors and promoters and concluded that the when both were present together the effects of the promoters completely overcame the effects of the inhibitors. Our practical advice is simply to include vegetables, salad or fruit with every meal and avoid drinking tea/coffee with meals if you are trying to increase iron absorption.

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Page last updated 11 April 2015