Judging from most headlines, iron deficiency is worryingly common in women — and these shortfalls are behind our plummeting energy levels and a host of other troublesome symptoms. But according to integrative physician and weight-loss expert Fred Pescatore, MD, author of The A-List Diet ($16.38, Amazon). most of us are far more likely to be struggling with warning signs of excess iron, ranging from weight gain, to fatigue, to joint pain. “Iron overload is much more prevalent,” Dr. Pescatore asserts, “and it can be even more harmful to your body than iron deficiency.”
Iron levels have doubled in the American population over the past 40 years, according to recent nutrition research. Part of the problem is that 95 percent of the flour sold in the United States is enriched with iron. As our consumption of processed carbs containing fortified flour and other foods with high iron levels have increased, so have our iron levels. Add in the surging popularity of cast-iron cooking (sales of the cookware have doubled in the past eight years), and it’s easy to see how iron overload has reached epidemic levels.
Aging just compounds the problem, leaving women born before 1978 most at risk. The reason: “We naturally accumulate iron in our cells as we get older,” explains Dr. Pescatore. “One study found that older cells have 10 times as much iron as younger cells.” And during menopause, iron levels build up even more as the body stops purging iron (via menstruation) each month.
High iron levels set up a vicious cycle of weight gain and fatigue. Though iron plays a key role in activating fat burning within the body’s cellular energy engines (called mitochondria), too much of the mineral actually damages these energy engines. “Excess iron acts as a catalyst and transforms hydrogen peroxide in the body into a compound that decimates the mitochondria,” says anti-aging expert Joseph Mercola, DO, author of Fat for Fuel ($20.40, Amazon). As a result, the energy engines are unable to keep metabolism operating at full speed, energy production stalls, and fat stores grow.
To complicate matters, excess iron increases appetite. Scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, found that subjects on a high-iron diet had 42 percent lower levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin than those on a diet with low to normal iron content, which led the high-iron group to overeat. Though studies are ongoing, the researchers posit that excess iron blocks fat cells from producing the hunger-dampening hormone, and as a result, satiety signals never reach the brain.
Despite how harmful iron overload can be, it’s possible to quickly reverse the damage and jump-start metabolism. Dr. Mercola recommends a two-pronged approach that works to flush excess iron from the body and heal and nourish damaged mitochondria. The first key, he says, is to normalize iron levels by donating blood and making lifestyle tweaks that reduce the amount of iron absorbed from food. In tandem, he recommends increasing intake of healthy fats to revitalize mitochondrial function, spurring cells to burn stored fat fast. This natural remedy also counteracts iron’s impact on appetite — the healthy fats dial down cravings by 40 percent. The payoff: Women who balance their iron levels lose as many as six pounds every week without struggle or deprivation!
As the body heals and stored fat melts away, the benefits multiply. In addition to powering up the mitochondria, Mercola says lowering iron levels boosts brainpower, supercharges energy, and banishes mood swings. Plus, women FIRST spoke to report thicker hair, lower blood pressure, and relief from joint pain. Read on to discover the easy strategies that will help you slim and energize.
Symptoms of Iron Overload
Can too much iron cause fatigue? If you feel tired often and struggle with very stubborn weight, plus four or more of the following symptoms, high iron may be to blame. (Ask your doctor for a ferritin blood test to confirm.)
- Thinning hair
- Mood swings and low moods
- Joint stiffness, especially in the knees and wrists
- Difficulty focusing
- Abdominal pain unconnected to meals
- Frequent headaches that become more severe over time
- Heart flutters
Iron Overload Treatment
Reversing high iron levels can stop middle-age spread in its tracks and help you lose weight fast and forever. This iron overload diet also provides a wealth of health benefits, including increased energy and relief from joint pain. To get results, Mercola recommends simple strategies that naturally lower iron levels, heal the cellular damage caused by excess iron, and fire up metabolism.
If you're looking to reduce high iron levels in the blood, compounds in these foods can reduce the amount of iron absorbed at meals to make slimming easier.
Wine: This sip contains a class of polyphenols (called catechins) that bind with iron in the intestines to decrease the absorption of the mineral by as much as 64 percent. Other catechin-rich picks include black tea, apples, pears, and sweet potatoes.
Eggs: Researchers at Kitasato University in Japan found that a unique protein in egg yolks (phosvitin) latches on to iron in the digestive tract. As a result, eating eggs with iron-rich foods like steak can reduce overall iron absorption by 28 percent.
Beans: These delicious gems contain phytic acid, a phytonutrient that binds to iron. Researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute in Corvallis, Oregon, report even small amounts of this compound can reduce iron absorption by 50 percent.
Dial Back Iron Levels
Try a phlebotomy for iron overload. “If you have iron overload, one of the quickest, easiest ways to help correct the problem is to become a regular blood donor,” says Dr. Pescatore. Studies show that donating blood even just once every two years lowers blood-iron levels by 37 percent, plus increases insulin sensitivity by 54 percent. Another benefit: Scientists at the University of California at San Diego estimate that for every pint of blood donated, the body burns 650 calories replenishing the lost supply.
For best results, Mercola suggests postmenopausal women donate blood at least twice a year. The Red Cross tests iron levels in the blood (not stored iron) before each draw. If your iron levels are too high, they may reject your donation. In that case, you can visit your health-care practitioner and ask about a therapeutic blood draw, which can be done at a doctor’s office, urgent-care center, or blood lab.
Check your multivitamin. “Take a look at your diet and supplement regimen,” advises Pescatore. “If your iron levels are too high, you definitely shouldn’t be taking an iron supplement — or any supplements that contain iron. Check your multivitamin in particular.”
Limit packaged carbs. The amount of iron we get from “fortified” bread, cereal, and crackers can really add up — and Mercola cautions that this particular type of iron may be more harmful: “The iron used in these products is a low-quality inorganic iron. It’s far more dangerous than the natural iron found in meat.”
Cook pasta sauce in a lightweight pan. A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association revealed that cooking pasta sauce in a cast-iron pan increases the iron content of the sauce by 850 percent. This is because acidic foods and flavorings (like tomatoes, eggs, vinegar, and lemon juice) leach iron from cast-iron skillets, dramatically increasing the foods’ iron levels. Instead, opt for enamel-lined or stainless-steel pans when cooking with these ingredients. Try these from Circulon ($177.34, Amazon).
Sprinkle on turmeric. “Curcumin, which is the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, naturally binds to iron molecules in the body — and it can even help flush them out through the kidneys,” says Pescatore. To get the benefits, aim to add one teaspoon of the earthy, peppery spice to meals each day (It goes great in marinades and rice dishes). If you prefer a supplement, Pescatore recommends taking 500 mg twice per day. Try this one from Puritan's Pride ($10.16, Amazon).
Close the kitchen at 7 p.m. To help keep iron levels in check, consider eating all your meals within an 11-hour period (say, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.). Restricting mealtimes at least five days each week has been shown to decrease serum-iron levels by 37 percent — and studies show women who follow this approach have 86 percent less belly fat compared with women who follow a standard low-calorie diet. If you get hungry in the evenings, Mercola suggests sipping chamomile tea. The floral flavor helps quell cravings, plus the brew is proven to calm the mind and improve sleep.
Heal Your Metabolism
To reverse damage caused by iron, consume at least one serving of healthy fats at each meal. Mercola says healthy fats fuel mitochondria function without promoting cell-harming free-radical damage the way carbs and sugar do. Top picks: half of an avocado; 1 Tbsp. of grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, or cacao butter; 2 whole eggs; 1 palmful of olives or nuts (especially macadamia nuts and pecans); or 2 oz. of heavy cream or Parmesan, cheddar, or brie cheese. Also key: Limit processed carbs, instead enjoying up to 1 cup of rice, millet, quinoa, or amaranth per day. These foods provide mitochondria-nourishing vitamins and minerals and aren’t enriched with low-quality iron.
What if I have low iron levels?
While high iron levels are a greater concern as we get older, iron deficiency is still fairly common among younger women — and it’s nearly as harmful, says Mercola. Common symptoms include low energy, unexplained shortness of breath, brittle nails, cold hands and feet, pale gums, a swollen or shiny tongue, and a crawling sensation in the legs. To test for low iron levels, ask your health-care provider for a ferritin blood test. If your levels are low, experts recommend adding at least two cups of iron-rich foods (like leafy greens) to your daily diet. These plant-based picks deliver a form of iron that is easy for the body to absorb and is less likely to build up in the body and cause iron overload.
Iron Overload Diet: Success Stories
The trip to Disney World with her five-year-old granddaughter was supposed to be fun, but Kathy Repetto was struggling to keep up with the child. Each time they stepped off a ride, Kathy had to look for a spot to sit and rest. "This is miserable," she admitted to herself. "I’m exhausted and sweating my rear off."
Kathy had a slew of health concerns, including fluctuating iron levels, diabetes. and high blood pressure. So when her brother — just 13 months older — had a heart attack, Kathy feared she could be next. “I wanted to be more like my mother, who at 82 could still run circles around the family.”
With the help of her local TOPS support group, Kathy found the strength to make healthy changes. She traded processed foods for wholesome choices and donated blood every 56 days.
Kathy’s iron levels came into balance and she shed 122 pounds in 11 months — without exercise! “It can be a real struggle after menopause, but I lost every single week.” Health perks followed: Kathy’s doctor reduced her blood pressure and diabetes medications.
“I’m able to love myself again,” Kathy shares. And best of all, she is an inspiration for the next generation. “I can play on the floor with the grandchildren and jump up in an instant!”
Breakfast: Bacon and Eggs: Scramble 2 eggs with 2 tsp. of heavy cream. Serve alongside 2 strips of bacon and halved cherry tomatoes. Season with fresh rosemary to taste.
Lunch: Avocado Grain Bowl: Top 1⁄2 cup of quinoa with 1⁄3 of a sliced avocado, 3 oz. of flaked tuna and 1⁄2 cup of fresh corn salsa. Drizzle with olive oil and lime juice to taste.
Snack: Enjoy up to 2 fat-rich snacks each day, like 2 Tbsp. of almond butter with veggies, 1⁄4 cup of pecans or macadamia nuts, 4 oz. of dark-chocolate pudding, or coffee with 1 Tbsp. of cream.
Dinner: Stuffed Chicken: Serve 4 oz. of pan-roasted spinach and feta-stuffed chicken alongside 1⁄2 cup of wild rice tossed with 3⁄4 cup of sautéed sliced yellow peppers and onions.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.