New analysis says many People are poor on this mineral – here is what to do about it

Grilled flank steak with tomato salad

When we say “iron pump” we suspect the first thing your brain jumps on is lifting weights. The rock style (ahem, or should we say Michelle Obama style ?!) hardcore weight training.

But apparently we need to talk more about dietary iron – and eat more. According to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition, the average iron intake of an American adult fell by 6.6% (men) to 9.5% (women) between 1999 and 2018. The estimated prevalence of iron deficiency anemia is therefore between 2.2% and 10.5%, depending on age and gender.

The researchers examined data from this nearly two-decade-long span and found that part of this decrease in iron consumption was due to the fact that many of us are eating more plant-based menus. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference reports that in 2018, compared to 1999, the following were:

  • 15% less beef intake in the entire US diet

  • 9% decrease in dietary iron intake in adult women

  • 6% reduction in dietary iron intake in adult men

In addition to consuming less iron-rich beef (be it for environmental reasons, health effects from eating plenty of red meat, animal welfare or other reasons), the beef we eat may have a lower naturally occurring iron content than in previous years. In fact, the scientists found that 62% of iron-containing foods had less of the mineral in 2015 than in 1999 – and this is likely one of the main reasons more Americans fall into the anemic category.

And this anemic state is doing our energy levels (or our general wellbeing) a disservice. Humans need iron for proper growth, for the formation of hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that helps carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body) and for hormone production.

Related: 25 Recipes for Boosting Your Iron Intake

“Every body processes and uses iron at different levels of performance [AKA bioavailability]. The amount of iron our bodies need to grow and develop depends on a variety of factors, including the source of the iron and what else is being eaten at the same time, “says Caroline West Passerrello MS, RDN, LDN, a Pittsburgh-based resident Spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics across from Healthline.

The story goes on

Iron comes in two forms:

  • Heme iron from animal sources and

  • Non-heme iron from vegetable sources.

The body can process and use both, but what you combine with either form of iron can maximize the potential benefits to the body. Phytates found in grains and beans can limit the bioavailability of iron, while foods rich in vitamin C (like watermelon, bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, and broccoli) can help the body better utilize non-heme iron from plants . (Psst … beef-free eaters, we’ve got you covered with this list of 8 foods that are more iron than beef.)

The researchers believe that focusing on growing more crops per acre could affect the nutritional value of the foods we eat directly and the foods we feed livestock (which we can then eat). Also, many Americans eat more processed foods, which can also increase their risk of iron deficiency anemia.

Women between the ages of 19 and 50 (due to menstruation and the loss of iron in the process), blood donors and vegetarians of any gender can be particularly affected by these innate iron shifts in the food system. Adult men need 8 milligrams per day, while adult women should aim for 18 milligrams per day. To put that in perspective, here are the 12 top sources of iron, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Nutritional Supplements Office:

  1. Breakfast cereals enriched with 100% daily value: 18 milligrams

  2. 3 ounces oysters: 8 milligrams

  3. 1 cup canned white beans: 8 milligrams

  4. 3 ounces dark chocolate: 7 milligrams

  5. 3 ounces beef liver: 5 milligrams

  6. ½ cup cooked lentils: 3 milligrams

  7. ½ cup cooked spinach: 3 milligrams

  8. ½ cup firm tofu: 3 milligrams

  9. ½ cup canned kidney beans: 2 milligrams

  10. 3 ounces of Atlantic sardines in canned oil: 2 milligrams

  11. ½ cup cooked chickpeas: 2 milligrams

  12. ½ cup steamed canned tomatoes: 2 milligrams

As we continue to learn more about this research and adjust our diets to be more iron-conserving, keep these 7 insidious signs of iron deficiency in mind so you know if you might need to schedule a talk with your doctor about your iron test levels.

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