Iron Deficiency In Children May Negatively Affect Their Brains

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Iron Deficiency in Children, Uncategorized

Is Your Teen Getting Enough Iron?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

iron deficiency in childrenFor those of you with teenagers – or who have had teenagers in the past – you may suspect that there’s nothing between their ears. But actually, there is a lot going on between their ears, and some of the neural contacts laid down in the brain during the teen years influence the health of their brain during their adult life.

And – no surprise here – what they eat can affect the health of their brain as well.  Iron deficiency in children may negatively affect their brains later in life.

Which brings me to a study (N. Jahanshad et al, PNAS 109 E851-E859, 2012 ) that looks at the adequacy of dietary iron intake during the teenage years and their brain health as adults.

 

Basics of Iron Metabolism

 

iron deficiency in children metabolismBefore I describe the study perhaps a little bit of what I call Biochemistry 101 is in order.

Free iron is toxic to living cells. For that reason, our body produces multiple proteins to bind and transport the iron. The protein that binds and transports iron through the bloodstream is called transferrin. Under normal conditions 2/3 of the transferrin in our bloodstream has iron bound to it and 1/3 does not. And that is the ideal ratio of bound and unbound transferrin for delivery of iron to brain cells and other cells in our body.

When our diet is iron deficient (or we have excessive blood loss) the percent iron saturation of transferrin decreases. The body tries to compensate by producing more transferrin, but this doesn’t really help since the problem was inadequate iron supply, not inadequate transferrin supply. Consequently, elevated transferrin levels are generally indicative of an iron-deficient diet.

 

Iron Deficiency In Children

 

The study was led by Dr. Paul Thompson of the UCLA Department of Neurology. He and his team performed brain scans on 631 healthy young adults with an average age of 23. The brain scans were of a type that measured strength and integrity of the connections between the nerves in the brain – in other words, the brain’s wiring. They then went back and looked at the amount of iron available to each subject’s brain during adolescence by looking at their blood transferrin levels from routine physical exams performed at ages 12, 14 and 16 (blood transferrin levels are often measured as part of routine physical exams).

The results were clear cut. Elevated transferrin levels during the teenage years were associated with reduced brain-fiber integrity in regions of the brain that are known to be vulnerable to neurodegeneration. These individuals did not show any cognitive impairments as young adults, but the concern is that they might be more likely to develop cognitive impairments as they age.  From this, we can determine iron deficiency in children may make them susceptible to mental disease as they age.

Dr. Thompson summarized his team’s findings by saying that “Poor iron levels in childhood erode your brain reserves which you need later in life to protect against aging and Alzheimer’s. This is remarkable, as we were not studying iron deficient people, just around 600 normal healthy people. It underscores the need for a balanced diet in the teenage years, when your brain command center is still actively maturing.”

 

Questions Every Parent Should Ask

If you have teenagers, you might want to ask yourself questions like:

  • What is your teenager’s diet like?
  • Is it balanced?
  • Are you sure that it meets their nutritional needs?
  • Should you consider supplementation to make sure that they are getting all the nutrients that they need?

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study suggested that inadequate iron intake in the teenage years may affect how our brains are wired in our adult years. The authors of the study interpreted the study as suggesting that an inadequate diet during the teen years could predispose us to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s as adults.
  • This study only looked at structural differences in the brain circuitry. We can’t conclude from this study alone that inadequate iron intake as a teenager will doom somebody to cognitive impairment and increased Alzheimer’s risk as they age. But we can conclude that adequate iron intake during adolescence is required for normal brain development.
  • And it’s probably not just iron. This study focused on iron status because transferrin levels are routinely measured during physical exams, so it was easy to go back and determine what each subject’s iron status was during their teenage years. Many other important nutrients are required for normal brain development, but we don’t have an easy way of going back and determining what someone’s nutritional status was for those nutrients in their teen years. What was shown to be true for iron in this study is likely to be true for other nutrients as well.
  • These were normal teens eating a normal American diet. They weren’t from a third world country and there was nothing weird about what they were eating. But, clearly some of the subjects in the study weren’t getting the iron that they needed from diet alone.
  • The teen years are a time of rapid growth and maturation. It’s not just the brain that needs the proper balance of nutrients during the teen years. All their tissues require proper nutrition.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (5)

  • Merlena Cushing

    |

    I clicked on the tab that said…”questionnaire that will enable us to serve you better you will receive a FREE copy of my latest eBook “The Dangers Of Sports Supplements”.” No questionnaire came up or any way to get this on Dangers of Sports Supplements. Thanks for your help on this.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Merlina.
      I was a bit premature announcing that eBook. The website design required to make it available is taking longer than anticipated. Once it is ready, I will add a link for current subscribers to get the book on the next “Health Tips From The Professor” email.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

      • Merlena Cushing

        |

        Oh, I see. Thanks for the reply.

        Reply

  • Hamilton C McKelvey

    |

    Hi Dr. Steve, Excellent information. I looked to see if I could receive a copy of your book entitled ” Sports Supplements”, but I did not see how to get it as it was not identified as an option after I was able to scroll down. Best wishes, Ham McKelvey NE42794 mckentwa2@gmail.com

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Hamilton.
      I was a bit premature announcing that eBook. The website design required to make it available is taking longer than anticipated. Once it is ready, I will add a link for current subscribers to get the book on the next “Health Tips From The Professor” email.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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