Questions on iron more complicated than some studies show


August 23, 1994|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,Special to The Sun

A recent study linking high dietary iron intake to heart attacks caused quite a stir, but needs to be kept in perspective.

Four more recent surveys did not show this connection. Clearly, the jury is still out on this issue, and it may be years before we have reliable answers. In the meantime, what's a reasonable person to do? We have to make food choices that, hopefully, improve our health and reduce our risks. And the problem is compounded because iron needs are different for different people.

Getting the right amount of iron for your life stage is important to your health and your energy level. Most folks old enough to worry about iron causing heart attacks also remember the old Geritol commercials about "iron-poor tired blood." In fact, fatigue is the most recognizable symptom of iron deficiency anemia. Although we joke about those commercials, being exhausted all the time is no laughing matter. Besides taking the fun out of life and limiting our physical activity, severe iron deficiency can also cause premature labor, and it can irreversibly limit brain development in children.

In the United States, the addition of iron to infant formulas and enriched wheat products like flour, bread, rolls, cereal and pasta, has sharply reduced iron deficiency, but getting enough iron is still a problem for many people, especially women.

From six months to 10 years of age, kids need about 10 mg of iron a day. After that, men and women differ in their iron needs. Even though men are generally bigger than women, women need more iron.

Boys from 11 to 18 need a little more iron than younger children, about 12 mg daily, because they're growing rapidly and expanding their blood supply. From age 19 until very old age, 10 mg a day will be enough. Men rarely need an iron supplement, and should have blood tests and their doctor's advice before taking one. Elite endurance athletes, especially runners, occasionally suffer from iron deficiency, but they, too, should be diagnosed by a physician.

Girls have greater iron needs. During their childbearing years, from age 11 to 50, women need 15 mg of iron daily to make up for the iron lost through menstruation.

During pregnancy, iron needs double to 30 mg daily (almost impossible to get without a supplement) to build the blood and muscle tissues of the developing fetus. After menopause, women, like men, need only 10 mg of iron a day to maintain healthy iron stores.

Through most life stages, we struggle to get enough iron. In later life, storing too much iron becomes an issue for some people.

But a few absorption facts about iron could help you prevent iron overload while you wait for answers.

There are two kinds of dietary iron. Heme iron is found only in meat, chicken and fish. It is well absorbed, regardless of whether you need it or not. Non-heme iron is also found in meat, chicken and fish, but it's the only iron in plant-based foods like beans and grains. Non-heme iron's outstanding benefit is that it is absorbed only as you need it.

So early in life, when iron needs are high, small amounts of lean meat, chicken and fish added to meals will increase iron stores, and make it easier to absorb some of the iron from beans and grains.

Later in life, when iron needs decline and an excessive amounts might increase heart attack risks, it might be a good idea to decrease the amount of animal protein and focus more on beans and grains. Adding vitamin C -rich foods like tomatoes, citrus fruit, berries, melons and dark green leafy vegetables to meals will help assure that you absorb enough iron from those plant based foods without overdoing it.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant the the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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