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You need to eat red meat to get enough iron.
It’s a message we hear all the time. But is it true? Do vegans get enough iron?
Do you ever wonder, as a vegan, if you are getting enough iron? I’m sure you’ve heard it (we all have) that “red meat is the best source of iron”. In a way , it’s meant to make you doubt your dietary choice to not consume animals.
Well you don’t have to worry. I’m going to show you that the truth is the foods with the highest level of dietary iron are almost entirely plants (and definitely not beef).
This post was inspired by a conversation with the young daughter of a new friend. She was expressing concern about getting enough iron. She had recently been trying to shift to a completely vegan diet and the information she was receiving from a medical practitioner was that she needed to be consuming red meat in order to keep her iron levels sufficient.
Women Need More Iron
While women from their late teens until menopause need more iron because of loss during their periods, what’s amazing is that lean red meat isn’t even one of the top 10 foods for dietary iron! So, her doctor was correct that she needed more iron, but red meat isn’t the best, or healthiest, source of it.
But before we discuss the best foods for iron intake, let’s talk about what iron does, the different kinds of iron, and what other foods inhibit, or enhance, the bio-availability of iron.
Why is Iron Important?
Our bodies need iron for growth and development. Iron is used to make hemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Your body also requires iron to make certain hormones.
Is All Iron The Same?
There are two types of iron present in food: heme and non-heme. Heme (derived from the Greek word for “blood”) is the iron present in the flesh of animals. Non-heme iron is the form of iron found in plants. Once in your system the two types of iron function the same, although heme iron is more readily bio-available and also has associated health risks.
The Bioavailability of Iron
Bioavailability of vitamins and nutrients is an important dynamic to understand. The amount of a particular nutrient in your food is not necessarily the amount that your body is able to utilize because of factors that either help, or hinder, the ability of your body to utilize the nutrient. For example, Vitamin C enhances the bioavailability of iron and calcium inhibits it.
Heme iron is naturally more bio-available to your system, but, fortunately, many plants in a good whole-food diet contain plenty of bio-availability enhancers, such as the vitamin c in citrus fruits and broccoli.
More information about iron rich plant foods and bioavailability here.
How To Get Enough Iron
It is extremely important to get an adequate amount of iron. Fortunately for most of us that isn’t difficult at all because many popular, easy to obtain foods are fortified with iron such as breakfast cereals and breads. However, more attention needs to be paid to this issue if you are eating very little processed foods, are gluten-intolerant, or a woman of child-bearing age.
|Birth to 6 months||0.27 mg*||0.27 mg*|
|7–12 months||11 mg||11 mg|
|1–3 years||7 mg||7 mg|
|4–8 years||10 mg||10 mg|
|9–13 years||8 mg||8 mg|
|14–18 years||11 mg||15 mg||27 mg||10 mg|
|19–50 years||8 mg||18 mg||27 mg||9 mg|
|51+ years||8 mg||8 mg|
What Are The Best Sources of Iron?
Lots of foods have iron, and many very popular and easily sourced plant foods have high amounts of the mineral. In the table below you can see a selection of common foods and their iron levels per serving. Removing the first one, breakfast cereals (because many whole food, plant-based, people aren’t sticking with cereal for breakfast) you can see that 7 of the top 10 are plants and that a tiny 1/2 cup of stewed tomatoes and cooked chickpeas have as much as a 3oz serving of beef!
Also, can we have some hands in the air for chocolate and white beans?
|Breakfast cereals, fortified with 100% of the DV for iron, 1 serving||18||100|
|Oysters, eastern, cooked with moist heat, 3 ounces||8||44|
|White beans, canned, 1 cup||8||44|
|Chocolate, dark, 45%–69% cacao solids, 3 ounces||7||39|
|Beef liver, pan fried, 3 ounces||5||28|
|Lentils, boiled and drained, ½ cup||3||17|
|Spinach, boiled and drained, ½ cup||3||17|
|Tofu, firm, ½ cup||3||17|
|Kidney beans, canned, ½ cup||2||11|
|Sardines, Atlantic, canned in oil, drained solids with bone, 3 ounces||2||11|
|Chickpeas, boiled and drained, ½ cup||2||11|
|Tomatoes, canned, stewed, ½ cup||2||11|
|Beef, braised bottom round, trimmed to 1/8” fat, 3 ounces||2||11|
|Potato, baked, flesh and skin, 1 medium potato||2||11|
|Cashew nuts, oil roasted, 1 ounce (18 nuts)||2||11|
|Green peas, boiled, ½ cup||1||6|
|Chicken, roasted, meat and skin, 3 ounces||1||6|
|Rice, white, long grain, enriched, parboiled, drained, ½ cup||1||6|
|Bread, whole wheat, 1 slice||1||6|
|Bread, white, 1 slice||1||6|
|Raisins, seedless, ¼ cup||1||6|
|Spaghetti, whole wheat, cooked, 1 cup||1||6|
|Tuna, light, canned in water, 3 ounces||1||6|
|Turkey, roasted, breast meat and skin, 3 ounces||1||6|
|Nuts, pistachio, dry roasted, 1 ounce (49 nuts)||1||6|
|Broccoli, boiled and drained, ½ cup||1||6|
|Egg, hard boiled, 1 large||1||6|
|Rice, brown, long or medium grain, cooked, 1 cup||1||6|
|Cheese, cheddar, 1.5 ounces||0||0|
|Cantaloupe, diced, ½ cup||0||0|
|Mushrooms, white, sliced and stir-fried, ½ cup||0||0|
|Cheese, cottage, 2% milk fat, ½ cup||0||0|
|Milk, 1 cup||0||0|
Its clear from this chart that plenty of plants have high iron values. The trick for vegans, of course, is eating a varied diet to ensure both enough iron and the presence of bio-availability enhancers such as fruits and dark green veggies.
It is important to note that iron intake is more of a challenge for women because of the iron lost during menstruation. The need is even higher while pregnant and breast-feeding.
No Meat, No Problem
We hope that this post has been helpful and demonstrated that not only is a varied (eat the rainbow!) plant-based diet the healthiest option but that it is a more than sufficient source of dietary iron. That means when you answer the “where do you get protein?” question and they respond with “but what about iron?” you can tell them about all the iron-rich healthy and delicious fruits, veggies, and grains that you eat!