One size still doesn’t fit everyone

Yesterday, I explained how the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when making supplement recommendations.

This is especially true when talking about iron.

I remember taking blood measurements in the 1970s in Southeast Asia as a young medical student. I measured iron levels of pregnant women. According to Western “standards,” their iron measurements were so low that theoretically these women shouldn’t have even been able to stand up. But they were walking around. And even working in the rice fields.

This taught me early in my career that everyone is different. And what is “abnormal” for one person–or one group–is entirely “normal” for another. Especially when it comes to iron.

The World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization quickly published my results.


Because they valued my insight that everyone is different? Or because they understood that maybe in the West we didn’t need as much iron as “experts” told us we did?

I think they published my results because some of the politically correct, “higher-up” international health bureaucrats wanted to move away from applying Western standards for health and healthcare to the second- and third-world populations.

But science is science, all politics aside.

I went on to research more about the problems of excess iron consumption with Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg. Dr. Blumberg started the M.D./Ph.D. program in biomedical anthropology and served as my faculty advisor for this program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Throughout the 1980s, I continued to study iron with Dr. Blumberg and his colleagues. We found that excess iron increases cancer risk. Other researchers found that it increases the risk of infectious diseases and heart disease. And just recently, researchers found that it increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well.

Of course, public awareness about the dangers of excess iron and unnecessary supplementation remains woefully low to this day. That’s why I continue to warn you about these dangers.

Unfortunately, even the experts who should be “in the know” continue to ignore the real data about iron. Experts at the CDC and the NIH continue to make careers pushing iron supplementation. Yet they ignore real nutrient deficiencies in the population, such as vitamin D.

Thankfully, some manufacturers finally began to see our data for themselves back in the 1990s. And they started to offer iron-free supplements. They didn’t wait around for government experts to admit the problem with iron.

But it’s not just supplements that get subjected to the one-size-fits-all approach.

Big Pharma likes to promote the concept of the “standard dosage form.” By mass-producing their drugs in standard doses, they protect their profits. It also makes it easy for doctors to dole out the drugs.

But here again, the concept is deeply flawed.

When it comes to prescribing the “correct” dose of a potent drug, you should consider a patient’s gender, age, size, metabolism, and even constitution.

Plus, there has long been gender and age bias in clinical research trials. This is one reason why we see so many “surprise” side effects after the FDA approves a drug and it hits the market.

Many “safe,” FDA-approved drugs turn dangerous once we give them to millions of unsuspecting patients. Especially to the ones who are elderly, have a wide range of ailments, and take a lot of other drugs.

Plus, for too long most research focused on men. Not on women.

Indeed, this may help explain how the whole iron supplement fiasco got started. One popular textbook in the mid-20th century established a set value for “normal” red blood cell counts. Many doctors at the time based their treatments on this textbook’s recommendations.

So, if your red blood cell count fell lower than the textbook’s “norm,” many doctors recommended iron pills.

But the textbook authors based this idea of “normal” on just a handful of medical students. And, of course, in those days, all of the medical students were young, healthy, white males.

Eventually, experts questioned the relevance of these “standards” to women, older patients, and ill patients in the U.S. We also see that populations in different parts of the world are different. This is also true of supplements. And drug treatments.

So what does all this mean for you?

First of all, look for high-quality, iron-free supplements. And you don’t need a “one-a-day” that contains mega-doses of multiple, random nutrients. These popular concoctions also tend to be very low quality, according to industry standards.

Secondly, remember that everyone is different. And just because your spouse has no problems with a certain dose of a certain drug, it doesn’t mean you won’t. So choose a doctor who treats you as an individual.