We all need iron, especially to transport oxygen from the lungs to our different cells efficiently and effectively. And yet, excess iron in the body is a health risk. Thus, it is critical to get in your better iron amount, more often. Here are some common iron nutrition questions I get about this mineral:
1) How do I know if my iron levels are ok? LOVE that you are asking this question first! We don’t want to guess if our bodies have the resources they need to run better, we should assess our current nutrition (and health status) to ensure that it gets its needs met, first by food, then with better supplements. Your labs will provide information about your current levels (in your blood) as well as your ability to store iron. Use The Better Iron Evaluation to assess your current foods, supplements, life stage and health to a) see your iron needs b) get tips for how to meet them better.
2) Why do people have different iron needs? Earlier in life, and during periods of growth (children, pregnancy) as well as activity choices like intense exercise can increase the body’s demands for iron to support healthy growth and oxygen distribution efforts. Throughout life, most women lose iron monthly via menstruation. Since adult males and post-menopausal women do not, their iron needs are different. People may lose iron due to health issues that cause bleeding, and other health issues can interfere with absorption so the iron needs will be higher. For these reasons, The Better Iron Evaluation asks you questions about your current health status as well as providing you the current DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) for Iron based on age, gender and life stage.
3) Can I really get in too much iron? Yes. The body can accumulate too much iron from excess intake. This is typically a greater risk from supplements and fortified foods, not foods. However, if risk from food can occur if mono-eating iron rich foods in high quantities. The body can also hold on to iron, not eliminate it, or not use it when something is not functioning properly. Excess body stores of iron, as well as “free floating” iron, increases risk of some cancers to heart disease and diabetes, as well as concerns of worsening cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and may even speed up cellular aging so it is critical to speak with your doctor if you think there is a risk of your getting in too much or not eliminating iron, or if your Better Iron Evaluation suggests this may be a concern.
4) How should I get my iron? From whole food first, and from plants first. This can be controversial as there are two types of iron – heme (animal) and non-heme (plants). Plant foods rich in iron include greens (yep spinach, just like Popeye says, as well as other greens, beans, seeds, even some spices). Use The Better Nutrition Evaluation to see which iron-rich plant foods you enjoy more often. The Better Iron Menu will help you make iron-rich choices, deliciously, from a variety of foods more often.
Often nutrition recommendations advise against non-heme sources for absorption concerns. I disagree based on what we know about better nutrition:
- The overall health benefits of plant-based diet.
- That other animals get their iron from plants.
- That vitamin C and other plant nutrients aid absorption of iron.
- That, perhaps, the absorption issues of non-heme are a built-in protection against too much iron.
This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy quality animal sources of iron but you don’t need to eat meat to get sufficient iron.
The other option for meeting your daily needs for iron is to partner your plant-based diet with a better iron supplement. I prefer a supplement to iron-fortified foods because many of these foods don’t deliver better nutrition in their other ingredients and the form and quantity of the iron for fortification may not be a better way to increase your iron levels.
Here’s a favorite iron-rich recipe: Quinoa Medley Bowl