Iron has an unequivocally positive reputation among the general public. After all, pregnant women use it to construct tiny humans, tiny humans use it to become slightly larger, more functional humans, and our cells require it to grow. And in many developing countries, iron deficiency is a real issue. Too little iron can have disastrous effects on cognition, growth, and overall physical robustness. Even adult women who aren’t building tiny humans inside their wombs may run low on iron due to menstrual cycle blood loss. Ask the average person and you’ll hear “the more iron, the better.” Consequently, many countries mandate iron fortification of wheat flour; in the US, we fortify pretty much everything with the stuff because it’s just so, so good for us. Is it true, though?
Does that mean iron causes these diseases and we should all stop eating red meat forever? No. There’s more to the story, of course, and observational studies can’t prove anything, but the breadth of connections should give you pause.
First, though, figure out if iron is a problem for you. Pregnant women, women who still menstruate, tots, babes, teens, tykes, kids: don’t worry about iron. Don’t stress. Eat and be merry.
Men, particularly those of you getting up in the years? Post-menopausal women? Get your ferritin levels tested. Ignore the suggested normal range, which for men is a massive 18-270 and for women is 18-160. What, are we supposed to believe that a ferritin level of 25 is just as normal as one of 240? Nonsense. There’s a lot of room for things to go wrong there.
Although we have mechanisms in place for regulation of iron absorption—and there are many ways we can actively change how much iron we absorb—men of any age and post-menopausal women have no mechanisms to shed excess iron. It can be done, but you have to be proactive and, most importantly, aware of the issue. Your body isn’t going to handle it for you.
So how can we handle things? We can regulate iron levels by altering how we absorb it and taking extra-physiological steps to excrete it. We can also mitigate any negative effects of ingested iron.
Eat dairy after meals. Dairy, especially the calcium it contains, is a potent inhibitor of iron absorption. More than that, calcium reduces any carcinogenic interactions between heme iron and colonic cells. That’s right; the majority of the animal studies purporting to show a link between red meat/heme intake and colorectal cancer use low-calcium diets or else the cancer won’t “take.” Scared of dairy? Most people can tolerate some form of high-quality dairy, whether it’s kefir, yogurt, hard cheese, or raw milk.
If you’re going to drink alcohol, make it red wine and lean toward lower-alcohol wines. Its polyphenols inhibit iron absorption, while straight ethanol enhances iron absorption.
Drink mineral water with your meals. High-calcium mineral water can both inhibit iron absorption and reduce the carcinogenicity of heme in the colon.
Train regularly. Intense exercise reduces iron stores. This is a problem for chronic exercises, particularly young women at risk for full-blown iron deficiency anemia, but it can be a helpful strategy for moderate iron reduction and may even explain some of the benefits seen with regular training.
Avoid isolated sources of omega-6 PUFAs. The proposed mechanism mediating the relationship between heme intake and colorectal cancer is heme’s oxidative effect on fatty acids. Which fats are subject to peroxidation, though? PUFAs. In one study, feeding heme iron to rats promoted colon cancer only when fed alongside high-PUFA safflower oil. Feeding MUFA-rich and far more oxidatively-stable olive oil alongside the heme prevented the colon carcinogenesis. In another paper, only mice consuming fish oil-based and safflower oil-based diets exhibited carcinogenic fecal peroxides after eating heme iron; a coconut oil-based group of mice had no negative reaction to heme.
Does this mean you have to ditch all PUFAs? Of course not. Nuts and seeds are good and contain inhibitors of iron absorption that balance out the interaction between the PUFAs and heme iron; refined soybean oil and corn oil just PUFA and little else. If you’re eating lots of polyunsaturated fats with your meat, if you’re cooking your meat in bad oils, or you’re eating meat that’s been cooked in refined high-PUFA seed oils (like most prepared and restaurant food), iron may cause problems.
Blood donation is the biggest take home from the entire post, if you ask me. You don’t have to adopt an entire new way of eating. You don’t have to take a bunch of supplements. You just go down to the clinic and give some blood. It’s good for you and good for people who need your blood. If you’ve got a husband or family member who refuses to adopt a Primal way of eating, just convince him to give blood. It might really help.
The idea of iron being wholly “bad” doesn’t jibe for me. High-heme red meat intake has trended downward and low-heme poultry has trended up, particularly in the US, yet the metabolic disorders and diseases associated with excess iron are progressing. In the context of a diet rich in refined PUFA oils and iron-fortified cereal grain products and deficient in colorful and phytonutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee, and tea with healthy full-fat dairy? Yeah, I can see heme iron adding to the issue.
But rather than give up a nutrient-dense food like red meat (and liver), you can get the best of both worlds by employing the strategies described in this post.
What about you? Ever had your ferritin levels tested? Do you (perhaps unwittingly) use any of the methods described above? Do you give blood? Will you?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care and be sure to leave your thoughts below.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.