Iron is a mineral that plays a key role in maintaining our daily health.
Benefits of iron:
- increased focus and energy
- better body temperature regulation
- increased productivity of red blood cells (red blood cells help carry oxygen around the body which decreases the likelihood of fatigue and allows for quicker recovery after activities or exercise).
When you do not get enough iron, or your body is not absorbing it efficiently, health problems can start to arise. This is called iron-deficiency, and it is very common; side effects of this can lead to health issues such as anemia. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, iron-deficiency anemia “affects about 4-5 million Americans yearly. It is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, causing extreme fatigue and lightheadedness.”
Economic, environmental, and genetic factors play a role in how easily accessible iron is and how iron is absorbed in the body:
- Economic: Since the beginning of the pandemic, the cost of beef and pork is up nearly 20% due to high inflation rates. According to an article by CBS news, Tyson Foods, a major meat production company, raised its prices of beef up a whopping 31% in the last year. This dramatic price increase can put families or consumers in a pinch, possibly neglecting the need for iron or finding iron substitutes altogether if beef is the main source of this nutrient.
- Environmental: People who follow strict vegetarian and vegan diets are more likely to have iron deficiencies, as the iron in plant-based sources is harder for our bodies to absorb than iron found in meat.
- Genetic: Females are more likely to struggle with iron deficiencies. Menstruating and pregnant women are most affected by iron deficiencies due to blood loss during menstruation and blood supply needed for fetus development and growth during pregnancy. Furthermore, people who are diagnosed with medical conditions or had surgeries related to the gastrointestinal tract are at higher risk of iron-deficiency anemia. (Think Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or a gastric bypass.)
To maintain good health, it is important to be aware of different ways to make sure you are ingesting iron in your diet. Red meat, such as beef, is typically the first food that comes to mind when searching for iron sources. It can also be found in meats such as chicken, turkey, and fish. However, if you don’t eat meat, iron is found in plenty of vegetarian or plant-based foods as well!
Even if you are eating foods that are rich in iron, your body may not be absorbing as much of it as it could be. Here is an important tip for you to maximize your iron absorption: increase vitamin C and decrease calcium. For example, instead of drinking a glass of milk with your steak/hamburger/chicken, try a salad with orange slices and strawberries. This is particularly important for those diagnosed with celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.
Here are some important plant-based iron-rich foods to consider adding to your diet:
Chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils, and varied beans like red kidney and navy beans contain high levels of iron. Of these options, lentils contain the most iron content per serving, where one cup of cooked lentils provides you with approximately 37% of the recommended daily iron intake (6.6 mg).
- Dark Leafy Greens
Spinach, kale, and collards are all examples of dark leafy greens containing a good source of iron as well as other nutrients such as protein, vitamin A, and fiber. Although consuming these raw greens alone or in a dish is wonderful, cooking the greens actually concentrates them further, which increases the iron content. For example, a 100 gram serving of raw spinach contains 2.7 mg of iron, but the same serving of cooked spinach contains 3.57 mg!
- Nuts & Seeds
Cashews, pine nuts, and multiple different types of seeds such as: sesame, chia, and dried pumpkin and squash seeds are further excellent ways to incorporate more iron into your diet. Sesame seeds contain the highest iron content of the nuts and seeds category, as well as an added bonus source of zinc, which helps support a healthy immune system. One ounce of toasted sesame seeds contains 4.2 mg of iron.
Tofu is a versatile, plant-based product generally made from soybeans. It can easily be tossed into any dish raw, fried, or grilled. Six ounces of tofu contains about 3-3.5 mg of iron. Soybeans and soy products are not only high in iron but contain 10-19 grams of protein per portion.
Whole grain is grain that has not been refined. During the refining process, the grain gets stripped of its valuable nutrients like fiber and necessary vitamins and minerals like iron. Specific whole grains such as: whole wheat, oats, and other grain substitutes like amaranth and quinoa provide a decent amount of the recommended daily iron intake. Both amaranth and quinoa are gluten-free choices offering 2-5 mg of iron per serving as well as other nutrients like fiber, zinc, and healthy complex carbs.
*Note: It is recommended to consult your primary doctor or dietitian before taking iron supplements or adding a significant increase of iron into your diet.
Iron is vital in maintaining health, but it is found in foods all around you. If you don’t eat meat, you can find it in vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. If there are certain foods you cannot have due to a dietary restriction, you can find iron in other places. As with most things in life, it is best to diversify your sources of iron whether it be red meat and poultry or different types of vegetables.