Dodge Diabetes by Sidestepping Iron

Healthnotes Newswire (July 20, 2006)—Once again diet is linked to diabetes risk: Iron from animal sources can now be added to the list of known culprits, such as excess dietary fat and carbohydrates. Iron from plant sources, however, does not appear to raise diabetes risk.

Diabetes afflicts nearly one in ten people over the age of 20, says the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Certain people are more prone to the disease, particularly those of American Indian, African American, and Hispanic descent.

A major contributor to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, and nervous system damage, diabetes is also the leading cause of kidney failure. Making simple dietary changes like cutting down on fried foods and eating more vegetables and whole grains may help prevent diabetes.

The amount of calcium, chromium, magnesium, and iron in the diet might also affect a person’s chance of developing diabetes. To see what effect iron intake had on diabetes risk, more than 85,000 healthy women between ages 34 and 59 provided information about their dietary habits and supplement use as part of the Nurses’ Health Study.

During the course of the 20-year study, 4,599 women developed diabetes. Study results, published in Diabetes Care, report that non-heme iron—which comes from plant foods—and iron from supplements didn’t raise the risk of diabetes; however, heme iron—which comes from animal products like red meat—greatly increased the risk. Women who ate the most heme iron increased their risk of developing diabetes by as much as 28%. Although the main dietary source of heme iron is red meat, the study found that heme from poultry and fish also increased diabetes risk.

Studies have shown a connection between high stores of iron in the body and prediabetes. Acting as a pro-oxidant, iron may cause damage to the organs and tissues of the body that may eventually lead to full-blown diabetes. Because heme iron is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, “it is probable that a chronically high intake of heme iron can lead to high body iron stores and thus may elevate the risk of diabetes,” the authors said.

How these results will affect the recommendations made to people who are at risk for diabetes remains to be seen. For now, people without iron deficiency may be wise to enjoy a diet rich in whole foods, while emphasizing plant-based sources of iron.

(Diabetes Care 2006;29:1370–6)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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