Pumping Iron to Improve Your Diabetes Control

To maintain a healthy body and to promote good diabetes control, your body needs iron!  You may remember from your high school chemistry that iron is a strong, hard, magnetic, silver-gray metal that is atomic number 26 in the chemical element list.  Iron is found naturally in the foods we eat, and iron is a component of tools that we use in everyday life, including our cast iron skillets and our iron dumbbells and exercise machines.  Our body and muscles need to be pumped with both the iron found in food, as well as with the iron in these important tools, so that we can be strong and healthy.

Resistance training with iron dumbbells (or other resistance exercise equipment) helps build lean body mass (or muscle).  The more lean body mass or muscle that we have, the better our body handles the circulation of the hormone insulin that regulates blood sugar.  A hallmark sign of type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance, which is affected by the ratio of abdominal fat to lean body mass.  Insulin resistance can be reduced or eliminated with resistance training or by “pumping iron,” and thus improve overall diabetes management.

Are you pumping enough iron?  Resistance training should be performed at least two to three times per week and include all major muscle groups.  To allow for muscle recovery, include one day between training sessions.  Most people are deficient in pumping iron this often.  Do you have this type of iron deficiency?

The Other Iron deficiency:  More than 1 billion people are also deficient in the nutrient iron.  Iron, as a component of hemoglobin, is responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood, while iron as a component of myoglobin is what makes oxygen available for muscle contraction.  Iron also helps the body utilize energy.

Nutrient Iron Deficiency in People with Diabetes:  The main laboratory test used to measure blood glucose control is called “hemoglobin A1c.”  If a person is anemic because of an iron deficiency, there are less red blood cells available, which may reflect in a lower hemoglobin A1c value, thereby giving a false sense of security that blood glucose control is better than it is.

How Much Nutrient Iron Is Needed?

Gender Age Range Iron Requirement (mg/day)
Males 9-13






Females 9-13








Pregnancy (all ages)


Lactation (>19 years)


Factors that Influence Nutrient Iron Absorption:

  • Type of Iron
    • Heme Iron
      • Found only in animal foods – meats, poultry, fish, shellfish
      • About 25% absorbed by the body
    • Nonheme Iron
      • Found in both plant-derived and animal-derived foods
      • About 10% absorbed by the body
  • Factors that enhance nonheme iron absorption:
    • MFP factor found in meat, fish and poultry
    • Vitamin C in tomatoes, oranges and other citrus fruits
    • Citric acid and lactic acid from foods
    • Hydrochloric acid in the stomach
    • Sugars, including those in wine
  • Factors that inhibit iron absorption:
    • Phytates and fibers – in grains and vegetables
    • Oxalates – in spinach
    • Calcium and phosphorus – in milk and dairy products
    • EDTA – food additive
    • Tannic acid and other polyphenols– in tea and coffee

Iron-Rich Foods to Include in Your Diet:

  • Fish and shellfish – tuna, salmon, oysters, clams, shrimp
  • Lean meats – beef, pork, lamb
  • Poultry – chicken and turkey
  • Organ meat – beef liver
  • Beans and legumes – kidney, black, soy, pinto, navy, garbanzo, lentils
  • Tofu and soy-based meat alternatives like veggie burgers
  • Greens – spinach, kale, mustard, collard and turnip greens
  • Vegetables – broccoli, asparagus, parsley, brussels sprouts, potatoes, peas
  • Dried fruits – raisins, dates, prunes, apricots
  • Iron-fortified whole grains – cereals, breads, tortillas, rice, pasta
  • Blackstrap molasses, egg yolks, nuts

Putting It All Together:

Some foods that are high in iron (such as whole grains) contain the less bioavailable, nonheme type of iron. In addition, some of these foods also contain factors that further inhibit the absorption of iron – like spinach, which is a nonheme iron source that also contains oxalates. Combining these foods with “iron-absorption enhancers,” such as vitamin C-rich oranges or tomatoes, improves the bioavailability of iron.  Also, cooking in an iron skillet can improve the iron content of the food.

Between a balanced diet and resistance training, improving your diabetes control by “pumping iron” is a smart and economical way to manage diabetes and prevent both kinds of iron deficiency!     

Purchase the Micronutrient Testing Profile