Gaining weight for no reason? This might come as a surprise, but iron deficiency and weight gain are somehow connected. Sometimes, the reason you're putting on weight has nothing to do with your diet.
Low iron levels in the body can lead to anemia, leaving you feeling tired and sluggish. You may find it difficult to exercise and stay active, which in turn, can affect your ability to lose weight and keep it off.
Iron deficiency won't cause you to pack on pounds, but it can affect your energy and stamina. As a result, you might find it difficult to stay active and stick to your workouts.
If you suffer from iron deficiency anemia, you may gain weight during treatment. However, as your iron levels return to normal, you'll regain your energy and feel like yourself again. This will allow you to work out more often and get back in shape.
Why Is Iron Important?
Popeye's love of spinach was legendary. This fictional character contributed to the growing popularity of spinach back in the 1930s. You see, spinach is chock-full of iron. Back in the day, it was believed that high iron intakes promote muscle growth and strength.
While this theory has no scientific background, iron does play a vital role in the body. This mineral is an integral component of hemoglobin, a naturally occurring protein in red blood cells. Hemoglobin helps transport oxygen throughout your body, gives blood its vibrant red color and moves carbon dioxide from your tissues to the lungs.
As the National Institutes of Health points out, most Americans obtain sufficient iron from food. Green peas, spinach, rice, pistachios, mushrooms and other plant-based foods contain non-heme iron, while meat and fish are rich in heme iron. Fortified breakfast cereals, for example, may provide up to 100 percent of the daily recommended iron intake per serving. This mineral is also found in oysters, dark chocolate, beef liver, sardines, poultry, nuts, tofu and more.
Furthermore, iron is a component of several enzymes, including those regulating energy metabolism. That's why low iron levels in the bloodstream may cause fatigue and tiredness. This nutrient supports immune function, too.
Its benefits don't end there, though. According to a July 2014 review published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, iron promotes skin health and maintains the integrity of mucous membranes. On top of that, it influences athletic performance and post-workout recovery due to its role in energy metabolism and enzyme production.
What Causes Iron Deficiency?
The NIH warns that certain individuals, including pregnant women, infants and cancer patients, are at greater risk. Iron deficiency also tends to be more common in people with heart failure, digestive disorders, celiac disease and women who experience heavy bleeding during menstruation. Heavy menstrual bleeding, for example, is responsible for 33 to 42 percent of causes of iron deficiency anemia.
Up to 35 percent of blood donors develop this condition too. Celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disorders and other digestive ailments can affect the body's ability to absorb iron and may lead to anemia.
This problem also tends to affect vegetarians, as reported in a December 2016 review featured in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. The risk is even greater for premenopausal, vegetarian women. As the review authors note, non-heme iron is poorly absorbed by the body. Most plant-based foods, such as nuts and grains, contain phytates, oxalates and other anti-nutrients that reduce iron absorption.
If left unaddressed, iron deficiency can lead to anemia. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), its symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:
- Low energy and unexplained fatigue
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
- Headache, especially during physical activity
- Poor mental focus
- Cold hands and feet
- Cravings for clay, ice and other non-food items
- Diminished appetite
- Rapid heartbeat
- Pale skin
- Overall weakness
- Breathing problems
Without adequate treatment, this condition may increase your risk of infections and affect cardiovascular health. It also has a direct impact on mental health and may contribute to depression. Pregnant women with iron deficiency anemia are at risk for preterm birth. If you suffer from a chronic disease, anemia can worsen your symptoms.
Unexplained Weight Loss and Anemia
Depending on the severity of your condition, there are several ways to address unexplained weight loss and anemia. If you have only mild symptoms, your doctor may recommend simple lifestyle changes to boost your iron intake. The NHLBI recommends eating foods rich in vitamin C to help your body absorb this mineral more efficiently.
Vitamin C can improve your body's ability to absorb iron. If you're deficient in this mineral, eat plenty of citrus fruits, leafy greens, tomatoes, broccoli, berries and other foods rich in vitamin C.
Iron supplements can help, too. However, too much iron can be harmful. When consumed in excess, this mineral may cause nausea and vomiting, changes in bowel habits, digestive distress, zinc deficiency, organ failure and even death, as reported by the NIH. That's why iron supplements should be taken only under medical supervision.
In severe cases, doctors may recommend injectable iron or blood transfusions. If iron deficiency anemia is due to internal bleeding, surgery may be needed.
Iron Deficiency and Weight Gain
Iron deficiency does not cause weight gain. The problem is that you may start to pile on pounds as your iron levels return back to normal.
In a July 2016 study published in the Egyptian Journal of Haematology, 60 percent of female subjects who received treatment for iron deficiency anemia gained around 6.6 pounds. Researchers state that weight gain is a common effect of iron therapy. While this study included only 33 participants and is therefore not conclusive, it is the only available study directly analyzing a link between iron deficiency anemia and weight gain.
This mineral is also a component of ferritin, a blood cell protein. According to the above study, iron therapy increases ferritin levels in the bloodstream. Elevated ferritin levels have been linked to higher rates of metabolic syndrome, increased waist circumference and insulin resistance, according to a study published in the October 2016 edition of Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome.
Low iron levels can affect your appetite, resulting in weight loss. This isn't always the case, though. Iron deficiency anemia drains your energy, making it harder to stick to your workouts and keep the pounds off.
The best thing you can do is to prevent these issues in the first place by filling up on iron-rich foods and getting regular checkups. Consult a doctor if you experience unusual fatigue, dizziness and lack of appetite. Eat a balanced diet to prevent nutrient deficiencies. Beware that crash diets can deplete your body of iron and other nutrients.
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- Egyptian Journal of Haematology: "Is Iron Treatment Related to Weight Gain in Female Patients With Iron Deficiency Anemia?"
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- NCBI: Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases: "The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance"