Iron deficiency is often discussed. There is hardly any talk about the opposite, the frequent overloading with heme iron, the iron form made from red meat and sausage. It promotes the common diseases of diabetes, cancer and arteriosclerosis. FOCUS Online shows how you can meet your iron needs in a healthy way.
The trace element iron is indispensable for a number of vital metabolic functions in the body. As a component of hemoglobin in the red blood cells, it supplies every body cell with oxygen. Iron deficiency, which manifests itself in anemia, exhaustion, susceptibility to infection, affects around 20 percent of women and ten percent of men in Germany. The higher risk for women is explained by menstruation and decreases accordingly when the childbearing phase of life is over.
Many people have an excess of iron – and know nothing about it
Iron deficiency is known and many nutrition-conscious people pay attention to adequate iron intake. However, significantly more people could have anything but an iron deficiency, namely too much of this trace element. Probably very few people know about it, although it carries a high risk of disease.
Heme iron and non-heme iron: these are the differences
First and foremost, it is important for these relationships – there are the two known, different forms of iron, only one of which can be hazardous to health:
1. Heme iron , i.e. bivalent iron (Fe), mainly found in red meat and sausage. Heme iron has a high bioavailability, the body can use at least 20 percent from food.
2. Non-heme iron , trivalent iron (Fe3), from plant-based nutrient suppliers such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, oil seeds and various types of vegetables. Non-heme iron must first be oxidized to some form of Fe in the small intestine in order for the body to use it. In this way, only around five percent of the iron from food comes into play.
The iron requirement per day is 15 milligrams for women and 10 milligrams for men.
Underestimated health risk heme iron
What is certain is that most people in industrialized nations have at least a sufficient supply of the trace element. Due to our meat and sausage-heavy diet, a large part is even oversupplied with heme iron, and thus risks diseases. Various studies indicate these relationships .
“We assume that too much heme iron can have negative health consequences through eating meat,” explains Matthias Riedl, board member of the Association of German Nutritionists (BDEM) and diabetologist, nutritionist, internist, managing director and medical director at Medicum Hamburg.
The human organism is not prepared for high meat consumption
Normally, a complex mechanism of substances in the liver and intestines controls the iron level. If too much iron storage protein ferritin is measured, the body slows down absorption. “This does not work adequately with large amounts of heme iron, the body continues to absorb it, simply because this form of iron is extremely easy to use,” says the expert.
The nutritionist explains that the cause lies in our evolutionary history. Up until two million years ago, humans were purely plant-eaters, only then did they add animal consumption. That was sometimes more, mostly less meat – definitely a lot less than is regularly eaten today. The human organism is not prepared for this.
High consumption of heme iron feeds cancer cells
The excess iron is then deposited in the pancreas, liver and spleen, which can put stress on the organs. But that’s not all. “Heme iron can promote mutations via certain chemical compounds – for example in intestinal cells, but also in other cells,” warns the internist.
In addition, these compounds have a cytotoxic effect, so they can not only change cells, but also damage them. “And cancer cells, on the other hand, are properly fed by heme iron, so to speak,” says the expert. Malignant cells have a high demand for this trace element. A high consumption of heme iron means that existing cancer cells grow better and are stronger against the immune system.
Meat lovers are more likely to develop diabetes and arteriosclerosis
In addition to the connection between heme iron and cancer, many nutritional studies have shown two other negative effects of the “meat iron”:
1. Numerous studies show that people who consume a lot of sausage and meat are particularly likely to have type 2 diabetes .
2. In addition, this dietary preference often leads to arteriosclerosis , with the well-known secondary diseases of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
“If people don’t eat ‘appropriately’, they get sick”
The higher the meat consumption, the higher the risks for cancer, diabetes and arteriosclerosis. What actually stands behind it: “If people do not eat ‘species-appropriate’, i.e. eat too much red meat and sausage and thus too much heme iron, they will get sick,” warns Matthias Riedl. It is well known that primitive peoples who still eat originally – eat very little meat and no sausage – do not have arteriosclerosis at all, for example.
Trivalent iron from plants is converted into bivalent iron
So heme iron has a rather negative effect on the body. Non-heme iron, on the other hand, does not pose these health risks – but is converted into bivalent iron in the body in order to make it available. Doesn’t it then become as unfavorable as bivalent heme iron? “No, because the trivalent iron from plants is converted into a bivalent iron, but not into heme iron,” explains the expert.
Providing the body with healthy iron – vegetables and fruits with non-heme iron
In order to provide the body with sufficient iron without meat, there are a number of plant-based foods that have a high content of non-heme iron, such as:
- Lentils around 2.7mg / 100gr
- Chickpeas around 2.7mg / 100gr
- Peas 1,5mg / 100gr
- Spinach 3,6mg / 100gr
- Chanterelles 6.5mg / 100gr
- Elderberry 1.6mg / 100gr
- Pine nuts 9.2mg / 100gr
- Millet 6.9mg / 100gr
- Flaxseed, ground 8,4mg / 100gr
- Amaranth 8.9mg / 100gr
Spinach contains a comparatively high amount of iron for a plant-based food, but at the same time the substances it contains can prevent it from being absorbed by the body. Beans or lentils are therefore better suited as a vegetarian source of iron.
Intelligently upgrade the bioavailability of iron from vegetables and fruits
Sure, none of these foods provide as much iron as meat. “The availability of iron from plant-based foods can be increased by cleverly combining the ingredients in a meal,” says Matthias Riedl. Vitamin C, for example, improves absorption. Suggestion for a corresponding daily plan:
- In the morning: oatmeal / muesli with fruit, a glass of orange or lemon juice for breakfast,
- Lunch: millet salad with paprika (the pods are extremely rich in vitamin C),
- In the evening: whole wheat pasta with broccoli or parsley pesto
Coffee and tea inhibit iron availability
However, there are also plant substances that have an inhibiting effect on iron absorption. These are phytates and polyphenols, for example, these plant substances are contained in coffee and tea. So avoid these drinks during, immediately before and after a meal containing iron. In wholemeal products, on the other hand, the phytate content plays a lesser role, as they convince with their high iron content.
Cover your iron requirement healthily, certain meats are also allowed
“Those who follow a purely vegetarian / vegan diet can still get too little iron, especially women are at risk here,” says the expert.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women in particular should take preparations if they have a proven iron deficiency. Otherwise there is a ‘species-appropriate’ solution for everyone: That means a small, moderate meat meal per week, preferably poultry meat, because white meat is not statistically associated with the disease risks mentioned.