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Iron Deficiency Increasing in U.S. Diets: Here’s What to Eat

  • Researchers say there has been an increase in iron deficiency in the United States.
  • They say the main factor is high crop yields per acre that are reducing the amount of iron in foods that people and animals eat.
  • Nutritionists recommend people eat more foods with higher iron levels, and foods that help the body absorb iron.

People in the United States have been eating less red meat and experiencing more iron deficiency anemia.

That’s the conclusion of a new studyTrusted Source published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Researchers said that data collected between 1999 and 2018 from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference revealed that there has been a:

  • 15 percent reduction in beef intake in U.S. diets
  • 9 percent decrease in dietary iron intake in adult females
  • 6 percent decrease in dietary iron intake in adult males

That’s not the full story, though.

The researchers also said that there’s a decrease in naturally present iron levels in beef and other animal proteins, as well as the plant-based foods they consume.

The decrease in iron levels in foods were detected in more than 62 percent of foods tested in 1999 and again in 2015.

The researchers said it’s this decrease in iron levels in the foods we’re eating that’s playing the largest role in the increase in iron deficiency anemia.

So, while beef consumption is down, it’s not the primary cause of higher rates of dietary anemia.

What to know about dietary iron

“Everyone’s body processes and uses iron at different efficiency levels [also called bioavailability],” said Caroline West Passerrello MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“The amount of iron used by our bodies for growth and development is based on a variety of factors, including the source of the iron and what else is eaten at the same time,” she told Healthline.

Passerrello said there are two sources of iron: iron from animal sources [also known as heme iron] or iron from plant sources [nonheme iron].

Regardless of the source, you still need to eat a balanced diet to ensure that iron is absorbed and that your body can use it properly.

Passarrello said that different foods have different effects on iron’s efficiency.

  • Phytates, which are present in grains and beans, may reduce iron’s bioavailability.
  • Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, can enhance the bioavailability of nonheme iron.

Lon Ben-Asher, MS, RD, LD/N, a registered dietician at Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida, echoes the importance of consuming foods rich in vitamin C since it helps to enhance iron absorption.

Ben-Asher recommends focusing on eating these foods for increased bioavailability and utilization of iron in our bodies:

  • potatoes
  • watermelon
  • tropical fruits such as oranges and kiwi
  • broccoli
  • colorful bell peppers

Where did all the iron go? 

Researchers said the answer is simple.

The way we grow crops [higher yields per acre] is impacting their nutritional value.

When we feed these crops to cattle and other animals, they’re also consuming less iron than before. When we eat these animals, we’re getting less iron from them because they have less iron to give.

There are other factors at work as well.

“Although there may be some reductions in red meat consumption as the plant-based trends have increased, that would likely not explain the full extent of increases seen in iron-deficiency anemias,” Ben-Asher told Healthline. “Unfortunately, the standard North American diet is focused more on packaged and ultra-processed foods.”

“This dietary pattern is typically calorie-dense and nutrient poor and this paradigm of less whole, plant-based foods is likely more responsible for inadequate iron intake leading to potential anemias,” he said.

Should you eat red meat to increase your iron?

All foods provide nutrients, but there are some nutrients we need more of and some nutrients we need less of, according to Passerrello.

She said that no one diet is going to give everyone the nutrients their bodies need and meet everyone’s taste preferences and budget at the same time.

“When I am asked by a client if they should eat or avoid red meat or if they should be a vegetarian or not, I have to ask more questions before I can make an informed recommendation for that person,” said Passerrello.

She also encourages clients to look at that word “should” in their question and to realize they are not obligated to eat one specific way.

“I hope more food choices get made based on affordability and taste instead of feelings of obligation,” she said.

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