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March 18, 2008

So You Think Your Diet’s Healthy, But What About The Dangers of Excess Iron?

Breakfastcereal_3Nutrition is unique among the scientific disciplines as it seems to be the only science in which the average person on the street will often see himself as an expert.  This phenomenon is understandable - we all have to eat three times a day for a lifetime, so it's only natural to assume that we may know a thing or two about nutrition even without ever objectively studying the subject.  But probably more so than with any other science, it's a good bet that nearly every idea the average American has about nutrition has simply been paid for with advertising dollars.  If we trust this advertising as true knowledge, and accept the "cultural norms" of nutrition blindly, we'll never even recognize the full cause-and-effect relationship between our diet and our health.  As we begin to see diet-related disorders affecting younger, and younger people with each passing year, perhaps it's time to actively question the "experts" whose council we've mindlessly followed for decades.   

Though it often goes unrecognized, one of the greatest dangers of our modern food supply is the shockingly high amount of iron added to processed foods and nutritional supplements.  It's easy, and even likely, for both health-conscious and non-health-conscious people alike to consume harmful amounts of iron each day - the lion's share of which often comes from iron-fortified foods and supplements.   

Cereal Killers Are Always Charming

Take for example the iron fortification of breakfast cereals.  Behind only soft drinks and milk, Americans buy more breakfast cereal than any other grocery item.  And while sugar-sweetened cereals are sometimes "outed" as being the thinly disguised candy which they are, very few people seem to question the artificial fortification of these cereals with a whole host of vitamins and minerals, including iron.  In fact, such nutrient fortification is sometimes seen as being breakfast cereal's only "saving grace." 

In childhood, the boxes in the cereal isle enticed us with prizes, games, colorful packaging, and cartoon characters.  In adulthood we're similarly enticed by the fact that our cereal contains "100% of the daily value" of several vitamins and minerals including iron.  Breakfast cereals have become so much a part of our culture that most of us never seem to notice what artificial and potentially harmful creations they really are.

In the most recent edition of the Integrated Supplements Newsletter, we outlined some of the many ways in which iron can accelerate the aging process.  We showed clearly that although the companies who add iron to food products like breakfast cereal certainly don't want you to know it, excess iron has been directly linked to the development of cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and diabetes. 

And perhaps most importantly, we also showed that the negative effects of iron are cumulative - our body simply doesn't posses efficient mechanisms for ridding itself of excess iron.  The damage this mineral can do steadily increases in our body over a lifetime.

See: The Anti-Aging Diet - Part 2 - The Dark Side of Iron for more info on iron's dangers.

When you first discover iron's many harmful effects, you'll be tempted to take a closer look at the composition of your foods and supplements.  You may be surprised to see just how easy it is to consume shockingly large amounts of iron from any sort of diet.

Iron In A Typical Day

Let's take a look at a "typical day's" diet for a generally health-conscious adult male.  We know that males require less iron than pre-menopausal females, and that the RDA for iron in adult males is a paltry 8 milligrams per day.  If we're not careful, we can easily exceed this amount while we're still in our bathrobe and slippers in the morning.

(Note: the RDA listed on food and supplement packaging is the adult female RDA of 18 milligrams, a dose far in excess of the needs of an adult male.)

Our imaginary breakfast could be a bowl of cereal with milk along with a one-a-day multi-vitamin for "nutritional insurance" (and of course, a typical bowl of cereal usually represents two actual servings according to the nutritional information listed on the box).

Lunch could be a 6-inch chicken breast sandwich from the local fast-food sub shop.

A late-afternoon "snack" or pre-workout meal could be a high-protein meal-replacement shake, fortified with a "balanced" blend of protein, carbs, vitamins, and minerals.

And dinner could be, say, a cup of pasta with a grilled chicken breast.

From a nutritional standpoint, a day like this would be considered a "good" day for most people, but let's take a closer look at the iron content of these meals, and see if even this health-conscious individual is in fact predisposing himself to iron excess.


First, breakfast.  Even if the breakfast cereal we choose doesn't contain "a full day's supply" of iron like some do, it's still easy to take in a boat-load of iron with any fortified breakfast cereal.  Assume we choose the popular oat-based cereal shaped into little "O's."  A two-cup serving would give us a whopping 19 milligrams of iron - 237% of the RDA before we even set foot out the door in the morning.

And don't forget that multi-vitamin.  The most popular brand in the country - sold at drugstores and supermarkets throughout the land - contains an additional 18 milligrams of iron - 225% of an adult male's daily value.  So, for breakfast alone, we come up with a total of:

37 milligrams of iron - 462% of the daily value for an adult male.


At lunch, we may not realize it, but the enriched flour used to make the bread or roll for our sandwich will contain added iron.  All told, our small chicken breast sandwich will contain an additional 5.4 milligrams of iron - 67% of the adult male RDA.

Protein Drink

And it's a safe bet that our pre-workout high-protein meal replacement drink will contain somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 milligrams of iron, an additional 137% of the daily value.


And finally, a cup of enriched pasta and a medium-sized chicken breast at dinner will contribute 3 additional milligrams of iron.

All told, this diet - which is probably similar to the diet of many health-conscious people - will contain:

58 milligrams of iron, which is
725% of the recommended daily allowance for adult males

And again, unlike many nutrients, our body will not simply rid itself of excess iron.  In males especially, iron builds up in the body over a lifetime causing major metabolic and structural damage. Multiply our imaginary day's diet by seven days a week; then by 52 weeks a year; then by 20, 30 or 40 years; and you'll have a pretty good idea of why even small excesses of iron are so problematic.

So clearly iron excess is a very real problem - one which goes unrecognized even in so-called "good diets."  Think about this next time you hear about somebody with heart disease who supposedly "did everything right."  Then ask yourself, "right according to whom?"

Consider This . . .

Now, of course, some people will tell you that the iron which is added to fortified foods is poorly absorbed (which is why food producers add so darn much of it), but the free-radical generating actions of iron can cause it to damage the gastrointestinal tract even without it being absorbed - something to think about for those whose iron levels are low, and who have been told to take in more iron to fix the problem.  A damaged intestinal tract sets the stage for a whole host of digestive, inflammatory, allergic, hormonal, and autoimmune disorders.

So, the first step in breaking the hypnosis that the food industry has kept us under for decades may involve taking a closer look at our foods and nutritional supplements - and avoiding those with added iron.  Eat fresh, whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible, and look on food labels for iron under its many names:

Reduced Iron
Ferrous Sulfate (or, ferrous anything, for that matter)

Words like "enriched" or "fortified" should be red flags as well.

On this blog and in the Integrated Supplements Newsletter we'll have more to say about iron in the coming months.  We'll even show you the nutritional and lifestyle strategies you can use to protect yourself from iron's relentless assault.

For example, a component of whey protein has been shown to bind to iron and facilitate its proper use while protecting us from iron’s dangers.

And certain types of soluble fiber have even been shown to enhance iron absorption if we’re deficient, but not if our iron stores are adequate.

Interested?  Stay Tuned.


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