Nutrients are essential for proper body function and development. However, despite a range of healthy eating campaigns and programs, a survey on the nutrient intakes of adults in Canada published in 2021 found that adherence to national dietary guidelines and recommendations remains low.
One of the micronutrients included in this study was iron. Although iron deficiency was not as prevalent among respondents as deficiencies in vitamins A, C, and D, it was identified as a risk factor for many diseases — including being overweight or obese.
If you have an iron deficiency, you may often struggle to maintain a healthy weight. Read on to find out more about this phenomenon and the relationship between iron levels and body weight.
How Iron Deficiency Affects Weight
With iron deficiency, you may struggle with physical activity since one of the common signs of iron deficiency is fatigue. Iron is found in hemoglobin which carries oxygen in red blood cells. It is also found and in myoglobin which helps oxygen reach your muscles. Without sufficient iron, your heart has to work harder to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body, thus depleting your energy levels.
As your energy levels decrease, you may experience weight gain. Regular exercise is needed to burn calories and manage a healthy weight, but iron deficiency limits the frequency and intensity of your exercise. In some cases, an iron-deficient individual can experience not just exhaustion but also headaches, lightheadedness, and even dizziness during and after exercise.
At a physiological level, the effect of iron deficiency on body weight is explained by the thyroid, a gland in your body that controls metabolism. In a study exploring the link between iron and thyroid functioning, it was found that iron, alongside other nutrients like iodine, zinc, and selenium, is essential for the synthesis and metabolism of thyroid hormones.
When there is nutritional iron deficiency, the thyroid gland becomes underactive; this slows down the body’s resting metabolic rate and eventually leads to sudden weight gain. This relationship between iron and the thyroid gland can also explain why people with hypothyroidism experience similar symptoms with iron deficiency, namely fatigue, exercise intolerance, and lightheadedness.
How To Address Weight Gain Caused By Iron Deficiency
One of the first steps in addressing iron-related weight gain lies in identifying what is causing the iron deficiency in the first place. One of the possible causes of iron deficiency in adults is a lack of iron in the diet, but there are several other factors that can play a role as well.
In the survey on Canadians’ nutrient intake discussed earlier, nearly 30% of women of reproductive age (19 to 50 years old) consumed iron in amounts that fell below the recommended levels. Since women are already at a higher risk for iron deficiency when they are pregnant or menstruating, it’s important to pay more attention to ensuring a nutritionally balanced diet.
Meanwhile, iron deficiency among adult men is relatively rare at 3.5%-5.3%, according to the American Society of Hematology. However, since gastrointestinal bleeding typically resulting from hemorrhoids or ulcers is the main reason for iron deficiency in this group, men need to be careful about their iron consumption. This will help maintain the health of their digestive systems and reduce the risk of blood loss. Thus, regardless of age or gender, a well-balanced diet with iron-rich foods is crucial to prevent an iron deficiency.
An unbalanced diet is not just about failing to meet nutrient requirements. Nutrient-poor foods are also filled with empty calories, which contribute to excess weight gain. To address both iron deficiency and the resulting weight gain, you can customize a weight loss plan with the help of a registered dietitian. This can help you meet your recommended levels for nutrients and calories. Aside from prioritizing iron-rich foods like tofu, dried fruits, and legumes in the right portion sizes, an individualized meal plan also builds healthy eating habits like meal tracking and mindful snacking. This helps individuals maintain a healthy diet that benefits both their iron levels and weight status in the long term.
Aside from unbalanced diets and blood loss, an active lifestyle was also identified as a cause of iron deficiency. This is because the body breaks down red blood cells more quickly during exercise, compared to when you are sedentary.
If you have iron deficiency, and are looking to increase your physical activities, then it’s better to stick to slow-paced, low-intensity exercises like yoga and tai-chi. These exercises can still help with managing a healthy weight without the risk of feeling fatigued or lightheaded. It is also recommended to take short breaks and only work out when you feel the most energized.
If you fall in both of the high-risk categories for iron deficiency, namely women who are of reproductive age and live active lifestyles, diet may not be enough to meet your iron needs. In such cases, iron supplements can help. Research shows that diets supplemented with iron can reduce weight gain and the accumulation of body fat, so you don’t have to worry about iron supplements disrupting your weight loss efforts.
One of the iron supplements available in Canada is OptiFer Alpha. These supplements are heme iron supplements, which is the type of iron that your body can absorb easily. If you are at a risk of iron deficiency, ask your doctor about OptiFer Alpha today.