Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Switching Diets: Iron Levels

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Today I tried to give blood (being O+, this is something I've been trying to do more of now that I'm eating healthier and more regularly than I was in college), but I was turned away because my red blood cell count was just a shade too low.

The first question the nurse asked me was, "Did you change your diet recently?" to which I responded affirmatively, indicating my decreased levels of meat intake. After a short go-between, she was alarmed to hear that I was doing the right things to help keep my iron levels up, such as taking multivitamins every day and eating spinach as the main portion of my salads every night.

I could not help but to laugh as she handed me a pamphlet with a list of foods that are rich in iron content. When people go vegetarian or vegan (or pescetarian in my case), everyone's main concern is protein. All the vegetarian websites and blogs I visit spend more time talking about food that is high in protein, but rarely have I seen anything talking about decreased iron levels. Which is ironic (unintentional pun!) since apparently, iron deficiencies is common among vegetarians and vegans.

The pamphlet I have been given says this about the subject of iron:

Iron plays many different roles in your body. It is needed to build hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying part of your red blood cells, as well as myoglobin, the oxygen carrier in your muscle tissue. Too little iron in your diet may make you feel tired and weak and eventually could lead to a condition known as iron deficiency or anemia. The greatest need for iron is during growth or periods of blood loss.

It seems like by increasing my iron levels, I will be able to run stronger and longer since more oxygen will be able to travel through my body more efficiently.

The suggestions they give for helping with iron absorption are:
  1. Meats, Especially Organ Meats, Are The Richest Source Of Iron
    The iron in meat and animal products is absorbed twice as efficiently as that in vegetables and other plant sources. Meat enhances the absorption of iron from plant sources so eat them together for greater nutritional value.
  2. Foods Rich in Vitamin C Help Your Body Absorb Iron
    Good sources of Vitamin C include citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, strawberries, melons, dark green leafy vegetables, potatoes, and vegetables in the cabbage family (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, etc.).
  3. Certain Substances Decrease Your Absorption of Iron From Foods
    These substances include antacids, tannic acids in teas, phytates in whole grains, and phosphates in cola drinks. Try not to consume these substances at the same time as you are eating iron-rich foods.
  4. Keep Your Cast Iron Skillets!
    Acidic foods, such as spaghetti sauce, cause iron to be released from your iron cookware. So, cooking in your cast iron skillet or pot can increase the iron in your diet.
Many one-a-day vitamins are a good source of iron, especially for vegetarians and others who may have difficulty getting enough iron from their food. In some cases, your doctor may even prescribe an iron supplement.

Obviously, Point 1 is useless for those of us who don't eat meat or don't eat meat regularly. Point 2 is what the nurse wanted me to focus on the most: whenever I eat something that is iron-rich, I should include something that has plenty of Vitamin C. I've noticed that a lot of the spinach salads at Whole Foods are topped with strawberries. Maybe it's time I make that a staple of my salad meals!

While I do take multivitamins every day, I also understand that they are only a supplement to the rest of my diet. They cannot be my sole source of iron. Multivitamins are only a crutch.
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The recommended amount of iron per day is 18mg, but just like carbs, protein, fat, and calories, this varies. Here is a website that indicates what it is for each person based on age and gender (for me, it's still 18mg/dl), as well as more reading material on the subject of iron and iron deficiencies. Women tend to need more iron than men because we have to deal with heavy blood loss once a month.

So what foods are rich in iron? The same website has a small listing, and this page talks about eight specific foods that are especially beneficial for vegetarians. The pamphlet the blood bank gave me indicated these (minus the non-fish meat):
  • Salmon, baked, 3 oz [0.8 mg]
  • Tuna, light, canned, 3 oz [1.3 mg]
  • White bread, "Iron Kids" brand, 1 slice [0.7 mg]
  • "Total" brand cereals, 1 cup [18.0 mg] !!
  • Breakfast cereals, various [1.0 - 18.0 mg]
  • Oats, quick, 1 oz dry [1.1 mg]
  • Spaghetti, 2 oz dry [0.7 mg]
  • Rice, enriched, 1 cup cooked [2.3 mg]
  • Kidney beans, canned, 1 cup [3.2 mg]
  • Split peas, 1 cup boiled [2.5 mg]
  • Baked beans, canned, 1/2 cup [1.8 mg]
  • Spinach, frozen, cooked, 1/2 cup [1.4 mg]
  • Apricots, raw, 3 medium [0.4 mg]
  • Raisins, dark, 1 cup [3.0 mg]
  • Prunes, dried, 10 prunes [2.1 mg]
  • Apple, 1 medium [0.3 mg]
  • Orange, 1 medium [0.2 mg]
Obviously, this list is not all-inclusive, and it is imperative to read the labels on food.

Many pescetarians websites boast that we have less chance of iron deficiencies than vegetarians or vegans because we are still consuming meat, but as I have learned today, we are still not immune, and vegetarians and vegans do not all suffer from this (many are definitely well-educated enough to avoid it). Certainly meat-eaters can still get not enough iron in their diets, too!

And just like everything else, there is such a thing as too much iron, which can cause a myriad of different health problems and concerns. Granted, hemochromatosis is hereditary, but that doesn't mean that taking in too much iron isn't something that we can just ignore.

My goal for this week is to slowly increase my iron levels. Considering that iron helps the use of oxygen in muscles and the flow of oxygen throughout the body, I can only see this as being beneficial towards my marathon training and overall fitness and health.

Memorial Hospital Blood Bank, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Increasing Your Iron Levels (pamphlet)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Iron and Iron Deficiency
Vegetarian Times: 8 Foods Every Vegetarian Should Eat

1 comment:

  1. Heh hmm explains a lot for me actually. Not only do I not eat red meat, but I tend to drink sodas and eat a lot of whole grains. I think my only chance is to eat more Total cereal :). Great info!