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Take It In: Pump iron to fend off fatigue

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Iron-poor blood, also called iron-deficiency anemia, isn’t just a nutritional problem for the geriatric Geritol generation. A deficiency of dietary iron can easily happen at any age, in women and men alike. The good news is that there’s a cure. That is, it’s all about pumping up the iron content of your diet.

Iron is an essential mineral, meaning we wouldn’t last long without it. In fact, iron is what makes red blood cells red. Nearly three-fourths of the iron in our bodies is either in blood cells, where it’s called hemoglobin, or in muscles, where it’s named myoglobin. Hemoglobin’s chief job is to take the oxygen we breathe in through our lungs and transport it to all the body’s cells where energy is made. Similarly, myoglobin transports and releases oxygen in muscle cells.

These two functions make it easy to understand the basis of a major symptom of iron deficiency: tiredness. Other symptoms include weakness, pale skin, dizziness, cold hands and feet, and shortness of breath, especially when running upstairs. Iron also plays supporting roles in our bodies. For example, it’s a part of some proteins and it functions in enzymes.

There are four main risks for iron deficiency or anemia. One is pregnancy, where iron requirements nearly double. Second is blood loss, which can be due to monthly menses for women, acute causes like a bad cut or surgery, or chronic causes such as a stomach ulcer. Third is a problem with absorbing nutrients, as in Celiac disease. Fourth  is not eating enough iron-containing foods.

Foods high in iron include: liver, red meat, pork and poultry (especially the dark meat); seafood; dried cooked peas, beans and lentils; dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale, beet greens and collards; dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots; and iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas.

Since red meat is one of the most potent and absorbable dietary sources of iron, following a vegetarian or vegan diet could lead to iron-deficiency anemia if care isn’t taken to eat plant-based sources of iron like the vegetables, fruits and fortified grains mentioned above. Other good plant-based sources of iron include tofu and soybeans; grains such as quinoa, brown rice and oatmeal; nuts and seeds such as cashews and pumpkin seeds; and blackstrap molasses.

Here is a trio of ways to boost your iron absorption:

  1. Eat iron-containing foods with those that are a good source of vitamin C. Citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwifruit, melons, peppers, tomatoes and broccoli are all rich in vitamin C. Examples of iron-vitamin C combinations are a glass of orange juice or fresh orange with oatmeal for breakfast; a leafy green salad topped with tomatoes, dried cooked beans and chicken for lunch; and a steak with iron-fortified pasta and a side of steamed broccoli at dinner.
  2. As well as serving up iron themselves, red meat, pork and poultry can also boost iron absorption from plant-based foods. Try adding lean roast beef, diced pork or chopped chicken or turkey to quinoa or brown rice bowls.
  3. Cook in a cast iron skillet. Cooking foods that are acidic, such as tomatoes, can boost the amount of iron that leaches from the skillet and into the food.

If you are anemic, don’t undo the good work of eating more iron by consuming foods that can block its absorption. This includes tannic acid in tea, coffee, cocoa (chocolate) and herbs such as chamomile and peppermint.

Finally, there are many supplements like Geritol and other name-brand multi-vitamins and minerals that contain iron. These certainly offer a boost of this essential mineral, but the best rule of thumb is to seek out nutrients from food first.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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