In case you didn’t know, iron is an important mineral for good health. In our bodies, iron is responsible for carrying oxygen in the blood stream. Iron deficiency is one of the top nutrition disorders, and it can contribute to reduced immune function, poor body temperature regulation, and even delays in mental development in children. So today we’re chatting iron and what we need to know about this important nutrient.
There are certain populations of people who require more iron than others. Infants and children, premenopausal women, and pregnant women all have higher iron needs than the rest of the population. Men aged 19 and above require about 8 mg of iron per day, whereas women aged 19 to 50 need 18 mg per day. More than double! For pregnant women, you need even more. Interested in how much you need? Find out how much iron you should be getting daily here.
Aside from women of childbearing age and children, you may also be at a higher risk for low iron levels if you either do not consume enough iron-rich foods (e.g. some vegans and vegetarians) OR your GI tract cannot absorb iron properly (e.g. individuals with digestive disorders like celiac and inflammatory bowel disease). If you fall under one of these, it’s even more important to take care in planning your diet to ensure you’re getting enough.
Okay, so how can I improve my iron intake?
By now you may be wondering if you consume enough iron-rich foods and maybe you’re interested to learn how you can eat more. We first need to introduce you to heme and non-heme iron.
There are two types of iron that exist – “heme” and “non-heme” iron. Heme iron is found mainly in animal foods, while non-heme iron is found in plants. Heme iron is more bioavailable to our bodies. This means that our bodies absorb heme iron more easily.
Non-heme iron from plant foods is less easily absorbed. This is because once consumed, our bodies actually need to convert the heme iron before we are able to use it. It is actually recommended that if you do not consume any animal products that you aim for double the recommended daily value of iron per day. This is because you absorb less iron from solely plant foods. Here are some ways that you can help your body’s absorption of non-heme iron:
- Pair non-heme iron foods with heme iron foods. Eating heme iron (like meat, fish or poultry) can increase the absorption of non-heme iron.
- Add vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables to meals to help increase non-heme iron absorption. Try my Spaghetti Squash Lentil Bolognese for a perfect iron (lentils) and vitamin C (tomato sauce) combo!
- Drink coffee and tea separately from your iron-rich foods. Coffee and tea are known to decrease iron absorption.
What are the best food-sources of iron?
Heme Iron – As I mentioned, heme iron comes from animal foods – primarily meat, poultry and fish. This includes various red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, liver, shrimp, scallops, crab, sardines, clams, various fish, canned tuna, and eggs.
Non-Heme Iron – Spinach, asparagus, edamame/soybeans, potatoes, turnip and beet greens, green peas, snow peas, beets, kale, tomato sauce, dried apricots, oatmeal, cream of wheat, oat bran, cold cereals*, pastas*, tofu, lentils, beans, pumpkin and squash seeds, chickpeas, tempeh, cashews, almonds, pistachios, hummus, almond butter and blackstrap molasses.
Vitamin C Rich Foods** – Includes bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, oranges, strawberries, kiwi, mango, pineapple, avocados, rasperries, blueberries, blackberries, grapefruit.
* In Canada, grain products like flour, pasta and cereals are fortified with iron.
** Pairing Vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich foods helps iron absorption.
Can a plant-based diet support a healthy iron status?
I often get asked the question – Do you think vegans and vegetarians get enough iron through diet alone? My answer is that if appropriately planned, a diet containing little to no animal products can meet daily nutrient recommendations. And as recommended, aim for double the recommended iron intake. If you have concerns about meeting all of your nutrient needs, it wouldn’t hurt to 1. Talk to your doctor about having routine blood work done to monitor your levels and 2. Seek help from a Registered Dietitian!