This is one of those things particular to the male condition. It's one of those things that quietly affects legions of bodybuilders. It can be detrimental and even damaging – particularly for those who have high androgen levels. Yet it's often omitted during discussions among certain nutrition "experts" . I'm talking about iron overload.
From the name of the condition, you'd think it's pretty cool. I mean, that's the name of the game, isn't it? Big iron rules, right? Well, we'll see that axioms which hold true in the gym sometimes misguide us at the dinner table. Although more is indeed better (within reason) regarding calories and protein for many of us, too much iron in our beloved meats and supplements could literally leave us toxic. Excess iron – in all its forms – isn't pretty.
You wouldn't think this by listening to most educational sources. I mean, we're taught from the time we're kids that iron is an essential nutrient that will help us grow strong and "enrich our blood." Heck, even Nutrition Facts labels list iron (along with calcium) as one of the mandated minerals. But highlighting a nutrient because it's important for (sometimes anemic) women doesn't mean the average guy should think he needs it too.
So what's the problem? Well for starters, iron overload has been linked to cardiovascular disease, in part due to its pro-oxidative nature. That's right; it has properties which make it the antithesis of beneficial antioxidants that we hear so much about. One might think of it as "anti-vitamin E."
Such oxidation could "harden" the plaques lining one's arteries (lipid peroxidation) and increase the atherogenic effects of high-cholesterol diets. And as a component of hemoglobin, iron is related to another heart-unfriendly characteristic of some high-Testosterone men: polycythemia. This condition of excess red cells increases the viscosity of the blood leading to greater cardiac workload, potential hypertension, increased risk of stroke and, despite homeostatic adjustments, poorer blood flow to tissues.
Of course, as longstanding treatments for anemia, Testosterone, nandrolone and other anabolics really kick up hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. T is a fundamental reason why men have higher hematocrits than women so you can imagine what pharmacological doses can do. Now, admittedly, the epidemiological (population based) evidence is spotty regarding iron and heart disease , but the underlying physiology makes enough sense to look pretty alarming.
As many of us are aware, oxidative damage goes beyond hardened arteries. Excess iron in tissues is also linked to DNA damage and cancer development, as well as diabetes and elevated transaminase levels like ALT and AST – although this has been questioned.
I've had bodybuilders ask me many times why they can't get their ALT and AST levels down, even after taking a week off from training and avoiding other, ahem, "liver stressors." Could bodily iron concentrations be yet another reason why men get more damaged than women after intense exercise?
It may be the case that simply enjoying iron-rich, plentiful meat year-round – combined with high Testosterone levels and certain genes – will leave us pushing up daisies along with the carnivores of the past.
Let's start with a quote. "Iron stores in excess of normal eventually occur in most men and some women." Ugh. Whereas women rid themselves of a fair amount of iron-rich blood monthly and generally consume less meat, we meat-swilling men have no good way of disposing of the stuff. Iron just hangs around in our systems, accumulating with time.
And the fact that (terrestrial) animal flesh contains heme iron – which is particularly bioavailable – doesn't help. Hence we're victims of our very carnivorous nature.
So how do we know that men accumulate iron in their circulation as they age? Although there is some debate whether transferrin saturation or serum ferritin (both iron-related proteins) is the best marker of iron status , it's clear that we gain progressively more iron from age 12 to 32 or so. If iron overload does indeed predispose us to several diseases or tissue damage, then this is disconcerting.
And things get worse. In an effort to combat oxidative damage, whether from muscle-damaging workouts or excess iron (or both), many bodybuilders take vitamin C. The ironic thing is that ascorbic acid actually enhances iron absorption , potentially leading to more iron overload – and among other things, greater oxidation. Double ugh! (Actually, vitamin E would be a much better choice.) For high-iron guys insistent upon their vitamin C intake, it appears best to take it as far away from iron-containing meals as possible.
There is hope. One corrective approach for men who are cognizant of their high iron levels – or are concerned over where they're heading – is to include plenty of low-iron and iron-free foods instead of obsessing over meats. Luckily, several are great for bodybuilding. Milk and eggs can be very valuable as they not only provide superior protein quality and contain little to no iron, but these foods actually may block iron absorption.
Although some authorities site literature that meat-containing diets are superior to lacto-ovo-vegetarian ones for muscle gain, recent data seem to refute this notion, at least in part. High fiber foods also help reduce iron absorption due to compounds like phytates as do coffee and tea, due to phytochemicals like tannins. Green tea in particular – at a dose of ten cups per day – has been shown to drop serum ferritin concentrations and tends to reduce ALT and AST enzyme levels as well.
There are a couple more beneficial moves one can make. Aside from avoiding iron and stainless steel-lined cookware, one dietary maneuver is to go for the tuna and even artificial crab meat – both low-iron alternatives to terrestrial meat.
Another smart move is to avoid iron in dietary supplements. This should be a no-brainer.
Breakfast cereals too, need attention as some are pretty heavily iron fortified. Be careful. Go for ones that provide less than 15% of your daily value and contain plenty of fiber. You're probably starting to see now that with a little dietary prudence, you can affect your iron status. Bodybuilders are not doomed to a ferric death. Remember, iron content information, in part thanks to the higher anemia risk of women, is ever present on food labels. Whereas they can readily seek it out, we men can avoid it if need be.
Special note: androgen users who are polycythemic (hematocrits over 54%) should not get too aggressive in eliminating dietary iron. The resulting smaller red blood cells would still be numerous and would actually increase blood viscosity worse than larger iron-replete ones, paradoxically. That is, although polycythemia is associated with an excess of iron-rich hemoglobin, it's a distinct condition from other types of iron excess. It's not like one can decrease his hemoglobin and hematocrit levels rapidly just by avoiding dietary iron.
Ultimately, if you're a man who enjoys his red meat, thrives on heavy weights and revels in his androgenic nature, remember that – at least when it comes to supplements – it's best to keep the iron on the bar.