Every now and then, my teenage boys acknowledge my nutrition education, admit that I might actually know something they don’t and ask me for advice. This week, they were complaining of being utterly exhausted. They found themselves doubting they possessed enough energy to finish all of that evening’s studying, let alone hit repeat the next day.
Of course, there is no elixir that I can whip up to magically give them a second wind or make them feel as refreshed as after a good night’s sleep. I might offer my children natural remedies they often think are wacky, but I am no witch doctor.
I did suggest that they make certain they eat well during these long, tiring days and nights. I hinted that perhaps their choice to sleepwalk through breakfast, talk to their friends through lunch and rush through dinner might leave them without all of the nutrients, especially iron, which they need.
Iron equals energy. Iron’s main job is to help carry oxygen from the lungs to every cell in the body. When you do not get enough oxygen to your cells, you are left feeling exhausted and weak — sound familiar, boys? Low iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in the United States. Even if my guys are not actually iron deficient, giving their cells a little more oxygen certainly cannot hurt.
Think about it: Getting oxygen to our brains, muscles and heart surely sounds like it would help energize each of these body parts. In fact, if our cells do not get the oxygen they require, they start dying. Makes you want to breathe deeply, doesn’t it?
Oxygen in the brain greatly affects cognitive output; if the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, it certainly isn’t going to be as sharp as it could. In fact, the brain uses 20 percent of all the oxygen in the body, so iron’s delivery job is vital.
[Physical] performance is also affected when kids do not get enough iron, as muscles, too, require boatloads of oxygen. Immune function and the ability to ward off colds are also affected when a body doesn’t have enough iron.
Iron is integral to many enzyme functions, helping us digest foods and absorb nutrients. When we are able to access all of the protein, fats and carbohydrates from our meals, we have more energy and are healthier. Iron helps balance hormone levels, essential for any teenager. Iron also helps regulate metabolism and creates healthy skin, nails and hair.
Kids and adults who drink caffeine may be depleting their bodies of iron. Caffeine inhibits iron absorption, making it hard for the essential mineral to get to our cells to work its magic. Digestive distress can also inhibit the absorption of iron. Excess exercise can damage red blood cells, the cells that carry the oxygen throughout our bodies, so the body may need even more iron when exercising to the extreme.
Women need more dietary iron than men. And anyone sticking to a vegetarian or vegan diet should focus on iron intake because vegetarian sources of iron are absorbed into the body differently. Heme iron — found in animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish and eggs — is two to three times as usable as the non-heme iron found in plant foods such as beans, leafy green vegetables and nuts.
If you are a vegetarian, the optimal way to get your iron is to combine leafy greens, beans and a food with vitamin C such as tomatoes or citrus. Vitamin C aids in all iron absorption.
The recommended daily amount of iron is:
- Children ages 4–8: 10 mg. (This age group often experiences rapid growth and requires more iron than older kids.)
- Children ages 9-13: 8 mg.
- Boys ages 14-19: 11 mg.
- Girls ages 14-19: 15 mg.
- Women ages 19-50: 18 mg.
- Men ages 19-50: 8 mg.
So, boys, if you want to jump-start your energy, make sure a day in your life looks something like this:
- Breakfast: three scrambled eggs with whole-grain toast and a cup of berries.
- Lunch: a bowl of meat-and-bean chili with sliced avocado.
- Dinner: chicken, rice and sautéed spinach.
Popping an iron supplement is not ideal without a doctor’s supervision, as too much iron can be as dangerous as too little. So stick to the real food, boys, and find another excuse not to study tonight.
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition education company, and co-author of a collection of healthful recipes and advice.