16th July 2000

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Health Ministry and the iron canard

By Mahipali

The Ministries of Health and Plan Implementation recently ran several newspaper advertisements on iron in the vegetarian diet. One of these says that meats and fish are rich in iron and therefore vegetarians are at high risk of being anaemic. "If you are skipping iron-rich food, make sure you take iron supplements." (Sunday Times, May 28). Another advertisement says that fresh leafy vegetables like spinach, tampala and sarana are also good, if they are "eaten together with animal protein" (Daily News May 24). According to these advertisements, vegetarians must somehow take some flesh in order to get the iron they need. That means they must abandon their vegetarianism!

Mahipali, vegetarian since birth, has never been told he was anaemic, although his blood has been tested at various times in various connections. Intrigued, he looked for help from authoritative sources to find out what on earth was wrong with his diet. He first consulted the American Dietetic Association Position Paper on Vege diets.

After stating that iron stores are lower in vegetarians because iron from plant foods is less well absorbed, it goes on to say. "The clinical importance of this, if any, is unclear because iron deficiency anaemia rates are similar in vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The higher vitamin C content of vegetarian diets may improve iron absorption."

Searching for more information, Mahipali found on the website of one of the most prestigious medical clinics of the USA, some interesting advice given to a questioner who wanted to know about iron, cholesterol and meat consumption:

"Poultry and fish are as high in cholesterol as the various forms of "red meat" (beef, pork, lamb and veal). While it's true that red meat contains large amounts of iron, red meat is usually higher in saturated fat than other meats, and saturated fat has at least as strong an effect on raising blood cholesterol levels as the amount of cholesterol you eat.

"Keep in mind that plant foods also are good sources of iron. Among the best are whole grains, fortified and enriched cereals, breads and pastas. Dried beans and peas, dark green, leafy vegetables (spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens and kale), dried fruits (raisins, figs, prunes, apricots), nuts and seeds also contain dietary iron. In addition to providing iron, many of these foods also are good sources of heart-healthy fibre, folate and antioxidants. They also are low in saturated fat. Nuts are high in fat, although it's mostly monounsaturated fat. In sensible amounts, nuts also fit into a heart-healthy eating plan."

The Health Ministry advice about iron supplements seems dangerous, in light of what almost all authorities say. Look at this, for example: "While everyone knows that we need iron to carry oxygen in the blood, few people are aware that too much iron is highly detrimental to one's health. Just as iron and oxygen work together in the form of oxidation we recognize as rust, something similar happens within the body. Iron encourages the formation of free radicals and their damaging effects." These are the words of Dr. Neil Barnard President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Dr. Randall B. Lauffer is a biochemist at Harvard University. His book Iron Balance shows that iron, a key component of the free radical theory of disease, can be "like a detonator in a munitions warehouse".

"The dietary modifications that people are trying to make now to reduce their fat and cholesterol will tend to reduce iron levels as well," explains Dr. Lauffer. "So, the push toward a more vegetarian-style diet - less meat, and more fruits and vegetables and whole grains - is totally consistent with all the iron information as well." Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians are not headed for iron deficiency. Rather, they have lower, safer amounts of stored iron in their bodies.

It is also reported that iron absorption can be promoted by eliminating coffee and tea with meals. "Coffee has been shown to decrease iron absorption by as much as 39 percent and tea by 64 percent. This is thought to be due to tannins and other substances which bind with the iron and make it less absorbable. This effect has been shown to occur even when coffee was consumed one hour after the meal." (Eve Shatto Walton, R.D., L.D.N. "Are You Getting Enough Iron, Or Perhaps, Too Much?" in Journal of the Vegetarian Resources Group. Baltimore, Maryland, USA, July/August 1994, an article referenced by 16 scientific papers published between 1983 and 1993).

What Walton says about the iron status of the US population is instructive: "Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutrient deficiency (in USA). It is estimated to affect about ten percent of the population." Similar, evidently is the situation in the U.K. "Iron deficiency is the most widespread mineral nutritional deficiency both in Britain and world-wide. .. Iron is the least plentiful nutrient in the typical British diet and anaemia is fairly common". (Vegetarian Society UK, Information Sheet on Iron). Since both these are traditionally meat-eating countries, it wouldn't be correct to say that iron deficiency is a result of the vegetarian diet.

Why is the Health Ministry asking vegetarians to be meat-eaters? Has it the right to interfere in the ethical choice of any citizen of this country? Does it not have a duty to be informed about the findings of modern nutritional science?

A physician may temporarily recommend iron supplements to a particular patient in the context of immediate physical needs, but the blanket advice "make sure you take iron supplements" is dangerous and irresponsible, especially when it comes from the health administrators of the country.

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