This is the promised greatly expanded post that we touched on here: How Food Enrichment Made Us Fat, Diabetic, and Chronically Diseased. The Duck Dodgers team has been working on this for months and the purpose of that earlier post was to kinda crowdsource the idea, see if there were serious objections we weren’t aware of prior to putting it all out there more formally. In addition to the home team, we’ve also run this by a number of others and received lots of valuable feedback.
Keep in mind that we’re floating a hypothesis here, not claiming causality. And we think it’s solid, as it appears to work in every single obesity / disease “paradox” worldwide we can think of. Contrast that, say, to a hypothesis were dietary carbohydrate is per se behind the obesity epidemic. Well, right off the bat you have to contend with The Blue Zones where longevity is highest, and every single one consumes a carbohydrate rich diet…
Iron is an essential element for human beings—you can’t live without it. However, too much of it can be harmful. The US, UK and Canada are the only developed nations to have mandated iron enrichment of white flour, white breads, pastas, rice and cereals—no other developed countries do it. And as we’ll suggest, the policy has potentially been disastrous for our health, contributing to most of the major diseases of civilization including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Some countries, like Denmark, have even banned the imports of fortified foods. In fact, flour fortification is a practice that is almost exclusively practiced by third world countries
The reasoning behind iron fortification stems from the idea that some women are believed to have iron deficiency due to menstruation. Besides the fact that skewing the micronutrients of the food supply for a fraction of a population can be counterproductive for the majority, it turns out that the entire concept of women becoming anemic due to normal menstruation was recently disproved. There is no anemia epidemic due to menstruation. And even if there was, it would not warrant a modification to an entire nation’s diet.
In developed nations, food enrichment is only intended to help a tiny minority of the population. For instance, in 1998 a significant level of synthetic folic acid was added to enriched foods solely to target pregnant women, in order to reduce the incidence of a very rare birth defect (affecting 0.035% of US births prior to fortification). The program is believed to be harmful to far more people than the policy is designed to help. That is the logic of food fortification. Help a few people and ignore any greater collateral damage.
Indeed, we are the lab rats.
The countries that fortify their foods with iron are the very countries that have the most problems with their wheat and carbohydrates. The demand for “gluten free” has skyrocketed in these iron-fortified nations. Mysteriously, other developed, non-fortified countries don’t seem to have problems with their carbohydrates.
Gluten sensitivity was rare in the US before 1950, when widespread fortification was instituted. Sweden and Finland had voluntary fortification up until 1995, and Denmark fortified until 1987, when they banned it due to health concerns and low bioavailability. After de-fortification, iron deficiency anemia was virtually unchanged in those countries, proving that the iron fortification actually did very little to prevent anemia.
Coincidentally Sweden’s gluten sensitivity epidemic ended in 1996, within one year after they stopped fortifying flour. The Netherlands doesn’t fortify their flour and has virtually no issues with gluten. France does not fortify their flour and gluten sensitivity is very rare there.
The French are technically “undernourished” by modern standards; they eat roughly 40% more wheat than Americans do—a tradition dating to at least the 1800s—they’re “addicted” to antibiotics, have no interest in exercise, and yet they have 1/3 the obesity.
While iron is an essential trace element, it’s not a safe one. Iron easily oxidizes—it rusts—and excess iron has been strongly linked to virtually every major chronic disease that has plagued developed nations over the 20th century: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, AMD, arthritis, chronic liver diseases, and endocrine disorders. Even heart disease markers, such as homocysteine, may simply be an indirect marker of iron stores.
Iron Fortification Adversely Disrupts Gut Flora
Recently, concerns have been raised about the elemental iron added to our food. And with good reason. The iron added to our foods is often just metal filings—you can even pull your cereal with a magnet. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that iron fortification has been shown to adversely affect the gut microbiome for people in developing nations. 
Iron can affect the structural and immunological integrity of the gastrointestinal tract and its microflora, potentially promoting invasion by pathogenic enteric bacteria, as well as increasing gastrointestinal inflammation.  For developing countries, iron supplementation resulted in higher incidence of or higher mortality from infections.
When iron is added to food, they have to add a significant amount because only a fraction of fortification iron is absorbed and most of the given dose passes into the lower small intestine and colon. Iron negatively affect crypts in the colon, increases free radical production in fecal material, and increases lipid peroxidation in the mucosa of the large intestine. Phytic acid, which inhibits iron absorption, suppresses colonic cancer, which has been linked to iron.
What we are seeing is a double whammy effect. Manufacturers will add vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or HFCS to their products to enhance absorption of the poorly absorbed fortified iron. Should you happen to absorb that iron, it has the potential to promote iron overload. Whatever isn’t absorbed passes directly to the colon and causes damage and disrupts the microbiota, ushering in a host of downstream health consequences. In the big picture, taking account of what we’ve learned about the gut microbiome, this edge of the sword may be making the deepest cut in the fortification scheme.
While iron in real foods is certainly helpful for preventing anemia, it’s been speculated that the damage caused by inorganic iron supplements may even be one of the mechanisms that reverses anemia. Ray Peat explains:
Ray Peat wrote:
Q: Don’t you need iron supplements if you are anemic?
In general, no. Many doctors think of anemia as necessarily indicating an iron deficiency, but that isn’t correct. 100 years ago, it was customary to prescribe arsenic for anemia, and it worked to stimulate the formation of more red blood cells. The fact that arsenic, or iron, or other toxic material stimulates the formation of red blood cells doesn’t indicate a “deficiency” of the toxin, but simply indicates that the body responds to a variety of harmful factors by speeding its production of blood cells. Even radiation can have this kind of stimulating effect, because growth is a natural reaction to injury.
Inorganic vs. Organic
Inorganic metals found in supplements and drinking water are different than the organic metals found in food—something researchers even noticed and heavily debated over 100 years ago. Although there is much confusion and disagreement about inorganic copper, high levels of inorganic iron and copper found in drinking water in Finland and Sweden appear to promote health issues without much obesity. Hereditary hemochromatosis is more common in Scandinavia—and both Sweden and Finland have among the highest incidences of diabetes and Alzheimer’s in the world—but their populations are rather thin.
However, one fascinating hypothesis points out that while regions with very high incidences of metal-related diseases, such as Scandinavia and Sardinia having high levels of inorganic iron in the water supply, they also happen to have high airborne levels of iron from finely glaciated soils or soil heaps from mines. Some iron-related diseases (MS, and diabetes, for instance) are known to be more prevalent at high latitudes, indicating a connection to Vitamin D. However, the connection to Vitamin D may be false. Metal particles in the soil are finer at high latitudes, due to glaciation and rock formations are easily eroded and carried by the wind, making them easily inhaled. Sardinia’s high incidence of metal-related diseases is explained by the airborne metals from the many abandoned mines and soil heaps on the island. Therefore, the metal-related diseases in those paradoxical regions may actually be from inhaled metals that are bypassing the liver and entering circulation in a free state, where they can more easily cause damage.
New Kinds of Anemia
It was thought until quite recently that all people with anemia simply needed to eat more meat or take iron supplements (iron-deficiency anemia). Some athletes can be susceptible to this kind of anemia. Although, iron deficiency can often be caused by a copper deficiency, since copper is necessary for the absorption of iron.
However, it is now known that anemia can also manifest as anemia of chronic disease where the body intentionally stops absorbing iron and stores it in tissues in order to keep iron levels low in the bloodstream—to avoid feeding iron-loving pathogens and cancer. It can be counterproductive to give iron to someone who has anemia of chronic disease.
Iron Promotes Metabolic Issues
It’s been well known for a few decades that elevated iron levels causes metabolic derangements. That’s not controversial. Chris Kresser’s 2012 AHS presentation explains the connections well. There is also evidence that iron-fortified flour increases inflammation and is not safe for non-anemic men. Yet, the FDA mandates that all white wheat flour in the US is enriched with iron. People have the ability to choose low-sodium foods, but should any American need a low-iron pizza, tough luck.
Excess iron is known to worsen chronic illness. Obesity  and Alzheimer’s  have been linked to iron overload. Obesity and insulin resistance has been linked to an iron-enriched diet, while bloodletting improves symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Obese people have iron in the hypothalamus of their brains (possibly increasing their appetite), in their urine, in their adipose tissue, they do not absorb iron well, and iron blood levels can be low in some cases. Researchers believe their bodies may very likely be using adipose intentionally to keep excess iron out of the blood (i.e. anemia of chronic disease). As those studies point out, a peptide hormone named hepcidin is used to regulate the iron status of the blood and cells throughout the body. Both adipocytes and neurons can use hepcidin, explaining why iron can accumulate in these tissues.
Here is a diagram of the mechanisms between iron and obesity that are currently being investigated by researchers:
Surprisingly, what virtually all researchers miss is that the developed countries that fortify their food with iron are the countries that tend to have the most obesity, metabolic issues and chronic diseases. (One recent study connected fortification trends to obesity, but overlooked iron as the culprit). This pattern is particularly apparent as iron-fortified nations consume more iron-rich meats.
The island nation of Nauru—the most obese nation on Earth—is perhaps a good example of a diet that promotes iron overload. They have an extremely high meat intake and they import iron-fortified foods from trading partners.
South Africa, a developing country that has a low meat intake but fortifies their flour with iron, has a terrible obesity problem—while their neighboring countries that do not fortify seem to be immune from such issues.
US Iron Intake Has Skyrocketed Since WWII
Widespread iron-fortification of white flour began in WWII. The country had just come out of the Great Depression and micronutrient deficiencies and hookworm infestations were common, while meat was rationed. The FDA began iron enrichment levels at 8-12.5 mg of iron per pound of flour.
By 1944, the amount of iron in the food supply was 17% higher than it would have been without enrichment. Over the next few years US states began passing laws to expand enrichment to pasta rice and corn grits. By 1950, advertisements from the Wheat Flour Institute and the AMA were appearing in LIFE magazine telling people to eat enriched white bread when dieting to lose weight. In 1954, LIFE published it’s first major article on obesity titled, “The Plague of Overweight.” By this time, gluten had already started to become an issue for Americans.
Despite the fact that Americans were eating more iron-rich muscle meat after the war, the FDA increased iron levels to 13-16mg of iron per pound of white flour.
Since anemia in pre-menopausal women still hadn’t been eliminated during the 1960s, researchers began proposing up to as much as 60mg of iron per pound of white flour.
In the 1970s the FDA attempted to raise enrichment to a whopping 40mg of iron per pound of flour, but scientists became enraged and accused the FDA of faking an anemia epidemic with letters published in JAMA claiming that Senator George McGovern and the FDA were pushing a dangerous iron-fortification policy.
The FDA’s dramatic iron increase was rescinded in 1977 and then the FDA raised iron to 20mg per pound of flour in 1983, where it stands today, and added iron was increased in other foods as well (rice, corn grits, pasta).
Within 10 years, “iron deficiency anemia” was still prevalent among premenopausal women and we magically got the latest obesity epidemic, plus childhood obesity.
In the 1990s, a number of iron toxicologists were warning that the FDA’s increases could cause serious harm to the general population.
The following chart, showing skyrocketing levels of iron in the US food supply, is from a USDA report:
That’s a huge increase in oxidizable iron in the food supply—a burden that very few developed nations have to deal with. The composition of that enormous increase in iron intake came from mandated increases fortification and increased meat consumption. Here’s what that same USDA report showed for iron intakes between 1909 and 2000.
And, mind you, this is with meat intakes increasing like this:
Why do US schoolchildren become obese with excessive fruit juice consumption, but German preschool children do not become obese with excessive fruit juice consumption? In the US, the schoolchildren eat their lunches with iron-fortified flour—the Vitamin C, fructose and HFCS all enhance the absorption of iron and thereby promote metabolic issues. In Germany they don’t fortify their food with iron, so the fructose, HFCS and Vitamin C have no such effect. This might suggest why diabetes is higher in populations with HFCS.
We blame our children for being lazy and sedentary, but the fact of the matter is that children born after 1983 are being exposed to unprecedented levels of iron in a developed nation that also has access to plenty of meats, vitamin C, fructose and HFCS. Even the high levels of iron in baby formula appears to have negative consequences on development.
It has been hypothesized that the extreme levels of iron in baby formula, combined with the high levels of iron in the food supply may be a direct cause to the rise in autism. Autistic children have decreased levels of major antioxidant serum proteins, namely transferrin (iron-binding protein) and ceruloplasmin (copper-binding protein), which lead to increased oxidative stress. Incidentally, the French, who do not fortify flour, have very low incidence of autism and ADHD.
The Role of Exercise and Sweating
Sweating excretes iron, which may explain the traditions of saunas and sweat lodges in some cultures that ate significant amounts of meat. It also explains why athletes have greater iron demands. Exercise can reduce iron loads, and therefore may be a key reason why it improves metabolic function. Perhaps this is why iron-rich liver was often reserved for highly active hunters and warriors.
Get Iron From Real Foods
Jane Karlsson, PhD, Oxford has studied the interaction of iron and other micronutrients for over 30 years and says that there’s good evidence that iron is only toxic when it is not opposed by manganese and copper, which are necessary for proper metabolic signaling in both plants and animals. Sugary plants require manganese and without it, their leaves turn yellow and their growth is stunted.
In foods found in nature, iron is often opposed by the beneficial organic versions of manganese, copper and zinc. The strikingly similar metabolic cycles across various species require those micronutrients to help maintain iron homeostasis and promote the formation of MnSOD in our mitochondria—one of the human body’s most powerful antioxidants against oxidative damage from iron.
Copper is needed for iron efflux. Iron can’t get in or out of cells without copper. For instance, in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, patients have iron overload in the liver because of copper deficiency. Phytates can enhance the bioavailability of copper from food.
Therefore, when you eat real foods, they will virtually always have a natural balance of opposing organic micronutrients (the foods themselves would not thrive without this balance), which protect against iron overload and promote weight loss. Manganese and iron compete against each other for absorption, so any food that is very high in manganese (hemp seeds, all whole grains, tree saps/syrups, green tripe) will help to properly manage iron.
Many people unfairly fear manganese. While inhaled manganese (which bypasses the liver) can cause manganism, the manganese ingested from food has no known toxicity and is regarded as one of the least toxic trace elements. Unlike iron, manganese is easily excreted.
The word manganese is thought to derive from an ancient word for magic. Magic relates to magnetism, and the biologically relevant form Mn2+ is extremely magnetic, even more so than most forms of iron. The magnetic field measured outside the human head may be due in part to Mn2+ in glutamine synthetase, the enzyme which detoxifies glutamate and ammonia. Yes, manganese detoxifies ammonia.
To put this in perspective, Jeanne Calment—the oldest person to ever live—consumed 2 pounds of chocolate per week, which would have provided her with roughly 125%DV of manganese and a good amount of easily inhibited non-heme iron. She lived until 122. Sarah Knauss, the oldest American to ever live and only outlived by Calment, was said to eat lots of milk chocolate turtles and potato chips.
Bivalves like clams, mussels and oysters might appear to be high in iron, but their iron is poorly absorbed and easily inhibited. The Inuit risk their lives to harvest mussels that are high sources of manganese, and they eat intestines and stomach contents, which are also extremely high in manganese. They drink teas and eat plants with iron-binding toxins and anti-nutrients.
Therefore, one should not fear iron in real foods. Simply understand that if one eats iron, they must also eat real sources of micronutrients, including manganese and copper. This is very easy to do when one’s food is not fortified and a wide variety of foods are consumed.
Balance From Whole Grains and Real Foods
The Hunza thrived on a diet that included whole wheat and other whole grains, dairy, nuts, fruits, vegetables and limited meat consumption. It was nearly a century ago that Sir Robert McCarrison observed these Hunzas and was their doctor for 7 years. McCarrison described them as, “the finest races of India, so far as physique is concerned, and amongst the finest races of mankind.”
Inspired by the Hunzas, McCarrison replicated their diet on 1,189 rats, giving them chapattis (flat bread, made of wholemeal wheat flour) lightly smeared with fresh butter, sprouted pulse, fresh raw carrots and fresh raw cabbage ad libitum, unboiled whole milk, a small ration of meat with bones once a week, and an abundance of water, both for drinking and washing. McCarrison described the results in the first of two lectures given at the College of Surgeons in 1931:
From: The Wheel of Health, By Guy Wrench
“During the past two and a quarter years there has been no case of illness in this ‘universe’ of albino rats, no death from natural causes in the adult stock, and, but for a few accidental deaths, no infantile mortality. Both clinically and at post-mortem examination this stock has been shown to be remarkably free from disease. It may be that some of them have cryptic disease of one kind or another, but, if so, I have failed to find either clinical or macroscopical evidence of it.”
McCarrison and others performed similar studies on rats with both white and enriched flours, each one ending with disastrous results. Rats cannot live on enriched flours. They die and become chronically ill.
Not only is whole wheat consumption associated with improved health and weight management, but it’s possible to lose considerable amounts of weight eating whole grains, fibers and iron chelating plants. Those micronutrients and anti-nutrients in whole grains inhibit iron and are protective against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Phytates, which are commonly thought of as “anti-nutrients,” have also been shown to reduce calcification of the arteries. Phytic acid chelates excess iron from the body. In fact, one common way to reduce elevated ferritin levels is to consume phytic acid supplements (IP-6). Or one could just eat legumes, seeds and whole grains. Now we can see why cultures that ate lots of meat would have benefited from anti-nutrients in their diets.
All whole grains are extremely high in manganese and other micronutrients—they promote iron homeostasis. Even better, whole grain flours are not fortified so long as they are not blended with enriched white flours. Typically white organic flours are not fortified. And some bakeries and mills have even begun offering freshly-ground whole grain breads and flours, which are very good sources of micronutrients, enzymes and iron-scavenging antinutrients.
Disclaimer: Our gut flora are responsible for metabolizing and detoxifying much of our gluten, so whole wheat may be a challenge for those with damaged microflora. Some have had great success by grinding their own fresh flour with a home flour mill.
Whole grains are an excellent source of phenols such as benzoic/cinnamic acids, anthocyanidins, quinones, flavanols, flavanones, chalcones, tocopherols, and amino phenols, that all have antioxidant activities against the damage from iron. These phytochemicals are actually believed to be the major health-promoting factors of grains. Therefore, simply choosing one’s food using RDA targets from the 1950s is a rather antiquated and oversimplified approach in the context of complex phytochemicals that help maintain iron homeostasis.
For instance, oats have strong anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory properties. A good deal of the health-promoting effects of oats are believed to largely be from their unique antioxidants, like avenanthramide and high levels of tocopherols.
The French Paradox
While people often cite the French Paradox as a reason to indulge in a high fat diet, the other side of the French Paradox is that the French eat roughly 40% more wheat than Americans do. Their tradition of very high wheat consumption dates back to at least the 1800s. The French are also “addicted” to antibiotics, they have no interest in exercise, are technically “undernourished”, yet they have 1/3 the obesity, very low incidence of chronic diseases like CHD and diabetes, and they have very few problems metabolizing gluten. Finding gluten-free options in France is no easy task.
A popular lunch spot in Paris looks like this:
The French do not obsess about their health—they only obsess about the taste of their food. Up until now, there has been no explanation for why the French have the ability to stay healthy on a Western diet rich in meats, baguettes and pastries. It’s a mystery. Even Dr. Davis has no idea how to explain why French “modern” wheat is so tolerable. Meanwhile many Americans cannot touch the same wheat without triggering inflammation and weight gain.
The French do not frequent “health food” stores. They eat whatever tastes good and they follow traditional pairings and courses. Their tastebuds have figured it all out.
What nobody seems to have noticed is that the French diet is engineered to inhibit the absorption of iron and scavenge its free radicals. Tea, coffee, cocoa, wine phenolics/tannins, eggs, chocolate and cheese are all well known to inhibit non-heme iron. The fondue, cream sauce or cheese course at the end of the meal inhibits heme and non-heme iron. Various forms of cooking transform some heme iron into non-heme iron. Wine does contain iron, and alcohol does improve iron absorption, however red wine phenolics reduce lipid peroxidation, and can inhibit iron absorption, especially when the alcohol is cooked off. The darker and higher the heme content of the meat, the more tannins and phenolics we crave to pair them with. Hollandaise sauce, red wine reductions, chocolate, cheese, spices like rosemary—they all inhibit iron absorption. It’s not intentional—tastebuds crave these kinds of food combinations.
Secondly, the French do not fortify their foods. Their baking standards require that their white flour be pure. As much as a chocolate croissant might seem devoid of nutrition, chocolate makes up for the loss of nutrients in refined flour—trading wheat bran for a cacao paste.
Chocolate is an excellent source of iron-scavening phytates, polyphenols, and high in micronutrients like manganese and copper. French children traditionally ate bread or croissants dipped in bowls of hot chocolate for breakfast, and pain au chocolat as weekend treats.
The French do have high incidence of colon cancer, which may be an indication that their relatively low fiber diet, addiction to antibiotics, or both, may not be ideal.
Iron Inhibitors and Chelators = Anti-Alzheimer’s and Anti-Diabetic Compounds
Are you now not at all surprised that chocolate is anti-diabetic and anti-Alzheimer’s? In fact, all of their iron-inhibiting compounds (tea, coffee, eggs, wine phenolics/tannins, cocoa and cheese) are known to be anti-diabetic and anti-Alzheimer’s. Here take a look…
This would not seem to be an accident.
Curcumin, honey, hempseed oil, white tea and green tea have similar anti-diabetic and health-promoting effects. Why? Among other things, they inhibit, chelate and deactivate free iron. Virtually every superfood seems to be high in micronutrients, such as manganese, and has the ability to chelate or inhibit excess iron.
The Masai Inhibit Iron
The Masai of Tanzania eat lots of iron-rich meat and blood with very little chronic disease. How do they do it? Their tastebuds are similar to the French. Instead of pairing iron-rich meats with red wine, they always consume meat soups with Acacia Nilotica, which has very high levels of tannins, saponins, and manganese. Tannins bind preferentially to iron, but not copper or zinc and they also inhibit free-radicals from iron.
The Masai consume honey and a liter of dairy per day—much of it fermented—even though most Masai are lactose intolerant. A serving of dairy inhibits both heme and non-heme iron found in cooked meat. Their considerable dairy intake may explain why blood was traditionally supplemented to their milk, at least occasionally, and not just amongst the Maasai, but Asiatic Turks, Tibetans and ancient Celts are also known for consuming blood with dairy.
The main iron-inhibiting factor of dairy is believed to be calcium, which is also found in high quantities in the health-promoting hard drinking waters of Longevity Villages, Blue Zones and the Ethiopian Great Rift Valley. Just two cups of some mineral waters has enough calcium to inhibit heme and non-heme iron absorption for a single meal.
Fiber, Phytochemicals and Anti-Nutrients Bind Iron
Fibers and anti-nutrients in foods, like phytates, phenols and oxalates, protect against iron overload. Only about 1% of iron from legumes is normally absorbed. And only 1% to 2% of iron in spinach is absorbed because of its oxalates. Depending on its preparation and food pairings, oxalates in spinach have even been known to chelate, or remove iron from the body. This may explain why we briefly persorb these compounds into our blood and they help protect against the same chronic diseases linked to iron overload.
Red wine contains phytates (from grape seeds), saponins, and tannins. Phytates, tannins, saponins, anthocyanins, fiber, anti-nutrients are chelators and inhibitors of iron. And some fibers bind well to iron and helps inhibit iron absorption. The phenolics in fruits such as apples, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries all have the ability to inhibit iron absorption.
Foods to Enhance Iron Absorption
The other side of this coin is that some cultures had limited access to meat and therefore did whatever they could to enhance their iron absorption. Vitamin C is considered to be the most powerful enhancer of iron absorption. Alcohol, beta-carotene and sugar enhance iron absorption as well. Meat and fat can enhance the absorption of iron from phytate-rich foods. So, it makes sense that the low meat cultures did whatever they could to avoid anti-nutrients (soaking, fermentation, cooking, etc.). Even spices have the power to enhance or inhibit iron when paired with certain foods. No doubt our tastebuds are in tune with these combinations.
Why do Jews avoid milk with their meat? Ancient Israelites ate a lot of dairy and grains, but rarely ate meat. They took steps to reduce anti-nutrients and they likely avoided dairy with meat to enhance their iron absorption. Today, Israelis have much more access to meat but still avoid mixing it with dairy. This may explain the Israeli paradox of high levels of CHD and colon cancer despite eating from what should be a healthy Mediterranean diet?
Cultures that didn’t have much meat enjoyed pairing iron absorption-enhancing fructose and Vitamin-C together with their iron-rich foods—like beans and salsa. Vegans, who avoid dairy and eggs—which inhibit iron—are known to have higher iron levels than their vegetarian counterparts.
The Tastebuds Figure It Out
These dietary choices were likely not made for health reasons. They were made because of what was available, and the food tasted better to them with specific pairings. One’s tastebuds naturally gravitate towards foods that promote iron homeostasis. It’s not something people have ever needed to think much about. The French do not obsess about their health—they mainly care about eating good food. The taste is paramount to all else.
Dietary Paradoxes Explained
This phenomenon of promoting iron homeostasis is largely overlooked by researchers and nutritionists. However, iron may in fact be the very key to unlocking most unexplained dietary paradoxes. Here are some paradoxes that iron homeostasis seems to explain.
• Why did heart disease deaths rise in Tunisia after their diet shifted from wheat to meat while smoking and inactivity declined? The diet likely promoted iron overload.
• Why does Northern Ireland have a CHD death rate 4 times higher than Toulouse, France, despite almost identical coronary risk factors? Northern Ireland fortifies its foods, but France does not.
• Why did the Pima Indians stay healthy for millennia eating beans, squash and maize but quicly became obese and diabetic from government-supplied flour? The government gave them white flour fortified with iron.
• Why is Nauru one of the most obese nations on Earth? They eat excessive quantities of meat and rely on fortified foods imported from their trading partners. Their entire lifestyle promotes iron overload.
• Why is obesity a major problem in New Zealand? They eat excessive quantities of meat and they have very low dairy consumption. Dairy is one of the only inhibitors of heme iron found in meat. Their diet promotes iron overload.
• Finland, Sweden and Sardinia are lean, but have very high incidence of diabetes and Finland has the highest levels of Alzheimer’s in the world, with very high levels of CHD. How is this possible? Scandinavian populations have high incidence of hereditary hemochromatosis and high levels of stored iron have been linked to heart attacks in Finnish men. High iron and copper in Scandinavian drinking water has been linked to heart attacks. However, one hypothesis speculates that airborne metals from finely ground high-latitude glaciation and mining soil heaps are easily inhaled and bypass the liver, allowing them to directly harm organs. This would appear to explain these paradoxes.
• Why are the Japanese, who eat lots of fish, slender with such great longevity? Fish is a low-iron meat and they balance their iron intake with sources of manganese. They also drink plenty of green tea, which chelates iron. Recent increases in diabetes in Japan are attributed to increased meat and fat consumption which promotes increased iron absorption.
• Why does South Africa have a terrible obesity problem despite having relatively low meat consumption? They have mandatory flour fortification of iron. Some Africans may also be more susceptible to iron overload.
• Why are fad diets popular in some countries? Countries where fad diets are popular tend to have fortified flour. In all cases, these fad diets all have one thing in common: avoidance of fortified flour. The diets invariably stop working the moment people return to a diet that includes fortified foods.
• Why did Sir Robert McCarrison observe extremely healthy cultures thriving on a diet high in whole wheat while some modern countries cannot tolerate gluten? The wheat McCarrison’s cultures consumed was not fortified. The countries that have trouble with gluten and the ones that fortify their flour.
• Why do excessive fruit juice consumption promote metabolic disfunction in US children but children in Germany have no issues with excessive fruit juice consumption? In the US, the schoolchildren eat their lunches with iron-fortified flour. The Vitamin C, fructose and HFCS all enhance the absorption of the high levels of iron and thereby promote metabolic issues. In Germany they don’t fortify their food with iron, so the fructose, HFCS and Vitamin C have no such effect.
• Why were chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes much rarer 100 years ago? Flour fortification was invented in the 1920s and became widespread after WWII—promoting iron overload and chronic disease.
• What caused diseases of civilization before fortification existed? If iron overload is the culprit, than a combination of refined sugar, high fat and high muscle meat consumption would have promoted iron overload. Incidentally, sugar used to be boiled in cast iron kettles during the refining process. Queen Elizabeth I’s teeth turned black from excess sugar consumption, which is a telltale sign of iron overload.
• What causes the Northern Ireland paradox where Belfast has a coronary artery disease death rate that is more than 4 times higher than in Toulouse, France, despite almost identical coronary ‘risk factors’. Northern Ireland fortifies flour with Iron and France does not.
• Why did CHD and mortality increased by more than 100% in Beijing between 1984 and 1999? The great majority of the increase was explained by a five-fold increase in intake of meat. That would have contributed to iron overload.
• Why do Blue Zones, have low chronic disease and increased longevity? Their diets are low in heme iron and they practice iron inhibition of non-heme iron. They consume low levels of meat, no fortification, high manganese intake, and high levels of anti-nutrients such as legumes and moderate wine phenolics. Their diets tend to have lots of fiber, which binds to and inhibits iron absorption. Some Blue Zones have very high levels of calcium in their drinking water, which inhibits both heme and non-heme iron absorption.
• How did this individual lose 50kg eating whole grains, fibers and herbs? Every aspect of the diet inhibited and chelated iron.
• Why are high fiber diets therapeutic and health promoting? Fiber is fermented by our microbiota into health-promoting metabolites. Some fibers binds to iron, and have the ability to inhibit and chelate iron.
• Alzheimer’s is far less prevalent in countries with unsanitary conditions. How does this relate to iron? Alzheimer’s has been linked to iron. Hookworms, which protect against iron overload, are ubiquitous in countries with poor sanitation.
Up until now, all dietary gurus have engaged in overly simplistic macronutrients wars. However, all macronutrient-based arguments are easily debunked by dietary paradoxes (French, Masai, Hunza, Kitava, Mbuti, Hadza, Blue Zones, Longevity Villages, etc.). Yet, the preservation of iron homeostasis explains all of these paradoxes. Furthermore, we can now see that all cultures with notable chronic health issues have a disruption of iron homeostasis. Nearly all dietary gurus have been oblivious to this key variable in human health. But that will hopefully change now that we have this new perspective. Now it’s up to you to spread the word.
Chris Kresser: Iron Behaving Badly: The Role of Iron Overload in Metabolic Disease
Anthony Colpo: Strategy for Reducing Ferritin Levels
The Iron Factor of Aging: Why Do Americans Age Faster?, by Dr Francesco Facchini
Exposing the Hidden Dangers of Iron, by Garrison and Weinberg
Iron: The Most Toxic Metal, By Jym Moon
Bill Sardi: Can Humans Live Longer?
The Iron Hypothesis
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