Iron Is the New Cholesterol


Image: NAUTILUS
Elevated iron is at the center of a web of disease stretching from cancer to diabetes.

By Clayton Dalton | NAUTILUS

Cheerios are the best-selling breakfast cereal in America. The multi-grain version contains 18 milligrams of iron per serving, according to the label. Like almost any refined food made with wheat flour, it is fortified with iron. As it happens, there’s not a ton of oversight in the fortification process. One study measured the actual iron content of 29 breakfast cereals, and found that 21 contained 120 percent or more of the label value, and 8 contained 150 percent or more.1 One contained nearly 200 percent of the label value.

If your bowl of cereal actually contains 120 percent more iron than advertised, that’s about 22 mg. A safe assumption is that people tend to consume at least two serving sizes at a time.1 That gets us to 44 mg. The recommended daily allowance of iron is 8 mg for men and 18 mg for pre-menopausal women. The tolerable upper intake—which is the maximum daily intake thought to be safe by the National Institutes of Health—is 45 mg for adults.

It is entirely feasible that an average citizen could get awfully close to exceeding the maximum daily iron intake regarded as safe with a single bowl of what is supposed to be a pretty healthy whole-grain breakfast option.

And that’s just breakfast.

At the same time that our iron consumption has grown to the borders of safety, we are beginning to understand that elevated iron levels are associated with everything from cancer to heart disease. Christina Ellervik, a research scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital who studies the connection between iron and diabetes, puts it this way: “Where we are with iron now is like where we were with cholesterol 40 years ago.”

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