Iron Deficiency and Women's Health + RECIPE!

What is iron?

Iron is used to make red blood cells (RBCs), which carry oxygen to our organs and tissues. When you are low in iron, your RBC count goes down. This means your blood isn’t getting as much oxygen to your tissues, which can lead to fatigue.

Our bodies are capable of storing 1 years worth of iron in a protein called ferritin. We do this in case our iron intake decreases so that we can pull from our stores. So what happens when ferritin is low?

Iron Deficiency

A couple of years ago, I was told I had iron deficiency anemia (IDA), the most common form of anemia. My ferritin levels were extremely low, which shows that my long-term iron stores were being depleted. My general energy level seemed low and I felt abnormally tired after workouts and runs. These symptoms of fatigue are typical of someone with IDA.


When I found this out I made a point to eat more grass-fed beef in my diet. It gave me a good reason to eat more burgers (I swear I ate 3 hamburgers a week). I also got an iron supplement (Vitanica brand) that I took not so religiously. Pills are the worst! -- So I focused on eating a lot more iron-rich foods daily.

I got my levels checked a year later and they were back to normal. Food is medicine!

Why is iron so important for women?


Pregnancy

Iron is the most common deficiency during pregnancy and generally occurs during the third trimester. There is a higher iron demand because you need to deliver blood and oxygen to both you and your baby, who has to build up iron stores to last the first six months of his or her life. The recommended intake goes from 18mg to 27mg when pregnant -- that is almost double!

Menstruation

Menstruation -- when you get your period every month, you are losing a lot more blood that normal. This will decrease you iron stores and increase the demand for iron through your diet. Make sure to eat iron-rich foods before, during, and after your period to prevent menstruation fatigue!

Athletes

On top of already being at an increased risk for iron deficiency, women who are training or doing intense exercise regularly are at an even higher risk. When you exercise, you are putting more demand on you RBCs to provide you with more oxygen. In fact, your muscles have iron stores that help them to perform better, repair, and grow. If you are not taking in enough iron, then your RBC count will decrease, causing you to have lower performance and more fatigue.

So...what foods should you include in your regular diet to prevent low iron?
 

My favorite sources of iron:

  1. Grass-fed beef

  2. Dark meat chicken

  3. Leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard)

  4. Nuts and seeds (cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds)

  5. Dried fruit (prunes, raisins, apricots)

  6. Sardines

  7. Beans (lentils, black beans)

  8. Blackstrap molasses

  9. Dark chocolate (my personal favorite)

  10. Beets

*TIP: Vitamin C helps to improve iron absorption. Fore example, eating tomatoes on a grass-fed burger or adding bell peppers to your black bean soup. 


Bonus recipe: Tahini Molasses Iron Balls

Makes 10 balls

Just two of these balls gives you 5.5mg of iron, which is 30% of the RDA.

Ingredients:
1 ½ cups cashews
½ cup dried prunes
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
3 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp molasses
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
Pinch of salt

Instructions:
Add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse until everything is coming together and bale to be rolled into balls. If too dry, add a splash of water and pulse again.

Roll into 10 balls and dig in!

Store in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.

Is all sugar created equal?

Is all sugar bad?

Over the past few years our ideas around sugar and fat have changed drastically. Suddenly fat has become increasingly trendy, while sugar is demonized. I spoke with an ambassador of the popular protein bar Square Bar and she said that the most common comment she gets from unhappy shoppers during grocery store demo’s is “wow that’s a lot of sugar”. Let's dig in to what 'sugar' really is.

What is glucose and fructose?

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate made up of fructose and glucose. In fact, the fructose to glucose ratio found in fruit is roughly the same as table sugar (40/50 for fruit, 50/50 for table sugar). Generally speaking, glucose is what causes your blood sugar to spike, while fructose is processed in the liver and doesn’t have the same effect.

MYTH: fructose doesn’t cause the blood spike, it must be better for us.

Fructose is processed in the liver in small amounts. When we overload our system with concentrated forms of fructose (agave, high fructose corn syrup), it stresses the liver and can even cause scarring. This toxic load on the liver also results in triglyceride production, which causes a slew of health problems.

Glucose is absorbed in the blood and causes our blood sugar to spike. When your blood glucose increases, the pancreas has to release insulin to ultimately bind to glucose and turn them into fat cells. It’s when we overload our body with glucose that makes the pancreas work extra hard and is desensitized to the glucose. Once this occurs, it can lead to health conditions like type 2 diabetes.

Added Sugars: fruit vs. Candy

While all sugars will cause an increase in blood sugar, not all of these sugars are created equal. Don’t just look at how much sugar is in a food -- look at the whole package. 

MYTH: when trying to make healthy choices, just choose the foods that are lower in grams of sugar.

1 large banana contains 17g of sugar while 1 Frosted Brown Sugar Pop Tart contains 15g of sugar. Does this make the pop tart the healthier choice? NO. Natural sugars are very different from added sugars. 

The ingredient list for the pop tart takes a whole minute to read (red flag) and includes added sugars like high fructose corn syrup along with many other additives, while a banana has no ingredient list at all. Also, the sugar found in the banana naturally comes with a bundle of other vitamins, minerals, and fiber. These other components will slow down the absorption of the sugar you are eating, reducing the blood sugar spike. By doing this, your pancreas doesn’t get overloaded with glucose all at once like it would if you ate the pop tart.

putting sugar into perspective

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends women have no more than 24g of sugar per day (6 teaspoons) and men no more than 36g/day (9 teaspoons). To put this in perspective, one 12 oz. soda is 10 teaspoons of sugar. The average American consumes 52 teaspoons of added sugar per day (152 lbs per year).

The Nurse's Health Study monitored 90,000 women over 8 years and found that drinking one soda per day caused women to gain an average of 10 lbs over 4 years and doubled their risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

 

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Pregnancy and Diet: The Macronutrients

What should I eat when I'm pregnant?

Calories

Why are pregnant women always so hungry? Energy requirements go up when you're eating for two! Your body requires an at least an additional 300cal/day during pregnancy (340cal/day during 2nd trimester and 452cal/day during 3rd trimester). 

Protein

It is estimated that about 925g of protein is accumulated during pregnancy. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for your cells. It is very important for the growth of the fetus, specifically the brain, and also for breast and uterine growth. It is even more important to get enough protein during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters, as this is when the fetus is growing the fastest. These increased demands must be met by the maternal diet. Pregnant women should be consuming 75-100g/day of protein (about 20% of your calories) or 2-3 servings. 

How much is 75-100g of protein?
Meat: 2-3 servings of meat (30 oz/serving)
Legumes: 2-3 servings of legumes (1/2 cup/serving)
Nuts: 1/3 cup of nuts will give you one serving of protein

Fat

Pregnant women should consume about 33% of their calories from healthy fats (about 40-60g/day). This energy from fat is used for fetal growth and development, specifically brain and vision. It also serves as a source of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: DHA and EPA

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for development and growth. Since our bodies can't synthesize these fatty acids, we must get them through diet. EPA and DHA occur naturally together in foods. During pregnancy, DHA is extremely important for fetal nervous system development. Consuming adequate DHA and EPA during pregnancy is linked to higher intelligence, better vision, and a more mature CNS. Also, inadequate DHA during pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk for maternal depression

How much DHA do you need?
DHA: minimum of 300mg/day
Sources: cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, anchovies, herring). With the concern of heavy metals in these sources, many people opt for fish oil supplementation from reliable source that is free of heavy metals. 

Carbohydrates

It's recommended that 45-65% of your calories should come from carbohydrates, a minimum of 175g/day. These sources should be coming from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains that are high in fiber. 

Hormones: the basics

What are hormones?

Hormones are chemical messengers that are released from endocrine glands to a target organ. They work throughout your entire body to make sure all of your organs and body systems are communicating well in order to work properly. They are released in response to a signal from your brain directly into your blood. Hormone secretion fluctuates over time and is dependent on many internal and external factors. Some common hormones include insulin, estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, melatonin, and vitamin D (yes, this is a hormone!).

Your hormone balance is regulated by the communication between your brain and your ovaries. Many factors interfere with your hormone balance, such as stress, diet, sleep, environment, and the natural aging process. 

3 Hormones You Should Know About

Estrogen

Estrogen is produced mainly in your ovaries and is responsible for the tissue development and maintenance of your reproductive system. It also increases the amount of neurotransmitters in your brain that play a role in mood, memory, libido, and sleep. It improves bone density, increases good cholesterol (HDL), and keeps your skin moist and elastic. 

progesterone

Progesterone, also produced mainly in your ovaries, balances the effects of estrogen and is responsible for the function and growth of your reproductive system. It is very important for fertility -- it increases after ovulation to prepare and thicken your uterine wall for implantation (pregnancy). Also, it has a relaxing, calming effect in your brain, resulting in better sleep and reduced levels of stress. Like estrogen, it is important for bone health and cardiovascular health. 

Testosterone

Testosterone is a hormone that most people associate with men. However, it is important for women as well. It is produced in your ovaries and adrenal glands and is responsible for libido and sex drive. It is needed for muscle growth, bone strength and growth, cognitive function, and supports cardiovascular health. 

Hormones and your cycle

To understand hormones, it's important to know about the roles they play in during your menstrual cycle, which is the number of days between your first and last period and typically lasts about 28 days. 

Progesterone and estrogen are low at the start of your menstrual cycle (first day of bleeding). This tells your pituitary gland to produce follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) , which stimulates the growth and maturation of a follicle in your ovary containing an egg. This will increase estrogen to prepare your uterus for implantation. Estrogen spikes right before ovulation which triggers an increase in your luteinizing hormone (LH) -- marking the beginning of ovulation (egg is released from the follicle) around day 12-14. After ovulation, progesterone increases to prepare and thicken your uterine wall for implantation. If fertilization doesn't occur, progesterone and estrogen decrease and you start to shed your lining resulting in your period (day 1). And the cycle repeats itself again.

 

Don't Fear The Fat

The history behind our fear

Fat is a word that most people fear. It brings on thoughts of greasy food and bulging bellies.

No one ever told us how important fat is for brain health, hormone production, joint health, digestion, energy production, and much more. Why did such a wonderful, natural, and delicious thing get such a bad rep?

In the 80’s, flawed science caused the government to urge us to avoid fats because it was thought to cause high cholesterol levels, heart disease, and weight gain. However, there was a huge lack of data and other complexities that scientists had not yet discovered. Saturated fats found in eggs and animal products were seen as the enemy. Butter was replaced with margarine, whole milk replaced with skim milk, sugar-laden non-fat yogurt...This is also when convenience foods started to become popular. We started to eat meals from a box, pre-packaged bread full of  additives and stabilizers, processed cereals for breakfast...Eating and cooking became more of a burden than the social and enjoyable part of our day.

We all thought we were being so healthy by replacing these natural fats with a more carbohydrate-centric diet. If we were cutting out fat, then why did Americans start to get heavier and heavier? Because the real culprit was the sugar -- the carbohydrates found in all of the bread, cereal, and processed foods we thought were healthy. Contrary to our belief, this sugar is readily converted into fat in the body, often in the midsection area, and causes spikes in blood sugar which is one of the major factors that has lead to the huge increase in diabetes.

I’m not advising you to start slathering your bread with butter and chugging whole milk from the carton. Healthy fats are something that should be included in your daily diet, in moderation of course. Let’s look at some of the benefits of healthy fats:

THE BENEFITS OF HEALTHY FATS

BRAIN FOOD

Did you know that your brain is made of at least 60% fat? Every single neuron in your body is surrounded by something called a myelin sheath, which protects the neuron and is responsible for the fast speed of messages sent from one neuron to another. Omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA) are particularly important for brain health.

HORMONE BALANCE

Fats are essential for hormone production. Cholesterol is a type of fat that is an essential precursor for hormone production. Don’t fear the egg yolks!

DIGESTION

Fat’s have to go through a lot more processes before they can be broken down, which results in you feeling satisfied for longer. Fat is also essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. When you eat a salad with a fat-free dressing, you are negating so much of the nutrition in the salad and are probably also consuming large amounts of sugar. Eat healthy fats with every meal to keep you fuller longer and to increase your nutrient absorption.

ENERGY

Every cell in your body has an outer layer composed of fat. Fat allows our cells to work efficiently and communicate well with each other. Fat is also an excellent source of energy because it’s effects are long-lasting, unlike sugar and carbohydrates which cause blood sugar spikes and crashes. Including healthy fats in your meals will keep you fuller longer.

FAVORITE SOURCES

  1. Avocados
  2. Olive/coconut/avocado oil
  3. Full-fat coconut milk
  4. Whole milk yogurt
  5. Nuts and seeds
  6. Fatty fish
  7. Egg yolks