Iron is one of the essential minerals that the human body cannot do without. But, if you hear people telling you that the only source of iron is red meat, let me tell you…THEY ARE WRONG! There are plenty of other iron rich foods.
Iron is naturally present in a lot of foods, and that includes plants. Plants have iron? Yes, in fact, plants not only get their iron from the soil surroundings its roots, they need this mineral the way we humans do. In plants, iron is needed in the production of chlorophyll, which provides oxygen. In humans, iron is a vital part of the hemoglobin in red blood cells which delivers oxygen to the body and the protein myoglobin, which also provides oxygen to your muscles.
Iron not only supports oxygen delivery in the body. It also helps in maintaining optimal metabolism and is necessary for proper cellular function and the production of connective tissues and oxygen.
If you are deficient in iron, not only do you become anemic, you also experience a lot of health problems, including depression, impaired immunity, impaired cognition, and gastrointestinal problems. It can even affect your exercise and/or work performance.
According to the National Institutes of Health, adult men and women should take 8 and 18 mg, respectively, of iron per day. Women should increase their intake of iron to 27 mg during pregnancy and their menstrual periods and 9 mg during lactation.
Looking at Iron Rich Foods…Which is Best For You?
As mentioned earlier, iron can be found in a lot of foods. Red meat is still considered the ultimate source of iron, heme iron in particular. While iron, in general, gets stored inside the body and the excess is not easily eliminated, heme iron gets stored in larger amounts in red meat. If you eat a lot of red meat, your higher consumption of iron is not a good thing because it has been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and other health problems.
Another source of iron is iron supplements. These are synthetic preparations. The problem with these supplements is that they contain a lot of heavy metals, which can cause also cause Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders, inflammation, constipation, and heavy metal toxicity.
The third source of iron is plants. The type of iron in plants is non-heme iron. Unlike heme iron, it is quickly used up by the body and does not get stored at all. Any excess is eliminated fast. The problem with non-heme iron, though, is that you need to eat it with other foods in order to increase its absorption by the body.
Getting Your Iron from Plant-Based Foods Instead of Red Meat
I know you’re wondering what plant-based foods you should eat to meet my daily iron requirements? Not to worry! Just take a look at this list of iron rich foods (plant-based) and add them to your diet…
10 Iron Rich Foods
1) Leafy Green Veggies
Leafy green vegetables, like spinach, are one of the richest sources of iron. Three cups of spinach alone can give you 17% of your daily iron requirement, much more than the iron content of the beef, chicken and turkey that you eat. Other great leafy greens that are rich in iron are kale, romaine, watercress, dandelion greens, and dark lettuce. While veggies can give you iron when eaten raw, it is best to cook them so that the iron can be easily absorbed by your body.
2) Hemp Seeds
Just three tablespoons of hemp seeds cover 16% of your daily iron needs. If you take it in protein powder form, the iron content jumps up to as high as 30%. It also contains other great nutrients, such as protein, magnesium, potassium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, chlorophyll and Vitamin E. Hemp seeds are nutty-tasting additions to your oatmeal, salads, entrees, and smoothies, and they make perfect baking ingredients for cakes and pastries.
If you love oatmeal, then you’re already eating a fantastic source of iron. Half a cup serving of plain oats will give you 10 to 15% of your daily iron requirement. You can get a whopping 50% of iron if you eat fortified oatmeal. The best oats to meet your iron needs are steel-cut, quick-cook steel-cut, rolled, or quick oats. But, it is advisable that you soak your oats overnight in water before cooking it. You see, oats contain compounds called phytates, which can prevent your iron from being absorbed by the body. Another excellent iron rich foods.
Tahini, aka sesame seed butter, provides 15% of your daily iron needs in just two tablespoons. It also has low carb content, but it is also rich in monounsaturated fats and proteins. Rather than eat greasy peanut butter, make tahini your favorite bread spread. You can also add it to your favorite dressings, dips, porridge, and smoothies.
5) Cocoa, Raw Cacao and Dark Chocolate
Chocolate lovers have good reason to celebrate! Cocoa, raw cacao, and dark chocolate are one of the richest sources of iron.
Raw cacao provides 10 to 25% of your daily iron requirement. With common cocoa powder, you can get 15% of the iron you need. Dark chocolate has the highest iron content, providing 40% of your iron needs.
Not only are they rich in monounsaturated fats, you can also get healthy minerals like potassium, magnesium, zinc and copper.
Add raw cacao nibs to your oatmeal and smoothies. Cocoa and cacao are also tasty additions to your morning coffee. Of course, treat yourself to a small bar or two of dark chocolate.
Half a cup of lentils will give you 15% of your iron requirement. It is one of the great sources of iron because it is easy to digest, unlike other legumes like peas or beans. Aside from iron, other essential nutrients that you can get from lentils are protein, zinc, potassium, magnesium, and the B complex vitamins.
The best lentils to eat though are red split lentils because of their higher nutrient content. You can add them to your favorite dishes, make lentil soup, or use them as a base for dips.
While you may know soy as being a rich source of protein, you can also add iron as being among the nutrients that this yummy bean can provide. In fact, soybean products, like tofu, fermented soy (tempeh), and soy milk can give you 15% of your daily iron needs. Just make sure that the soybeans and soy products you buy are non-GMO and you have an iron-rich food to add to your diet.
8) White Beans (Navy Beans or Cannellini)
If you’re not too fond of soy, white beans are a better option for you, providing 11% of your daily iron needs. What’s more, unlike soy, the iron in white beans are easier to absorb. Aside from iron, white beans are rich in protein, magnesium, potassium and calcium. You can enjoy white beans as a tasty addition to your soups, salads, or you can blend them to create a yummy dip.
9) Chia Seeds
Aside from being a rich source of protein, you can get 12% of your daily iron requirement from two tablespoons of chia seeds. Other minerals that you can get from chia seeds are zinc, magnesium and potassium.
Cashew is one of the healthiest and yummy snacks around. It is also a great iron rich foods. One fourth cup of cashews will give you 11% of your daily iron needs. It is also packed with protein, zinc, magnesium, manganese and copper. You can eat your cashews raw or you can blend them and make your own tasty cashew butter.
How to Improve Iron Absorption from Plant-Based Foods
Earlier, it was mentioned that non-heme iron from plant-based foods is easily eliminated by the body. For this reason, you need to improve your non-heme iron absorption in order to get its full health benefits.
Keep these tips in mind so that you can improve your iron absorption as you eat plant-based foods…
1) Combine your iron-rich plant-based foods with foods that are rich in Vitamin C
Vitamin C rich foods, such as some fruits and veggies, can assist the body in absorbing non-heme iron. When you eat our iron-rich foods above, make sure that you have an orange or other Vitamin C containing for dessert.
2) Make iron-rich foods a part of your regular diet
While you can eat plant-based foods solo, for better absorption of the non-heme iron, it is still best to consume these foods with other iron sources, like chicken, turkey, and seafood.
3) Consume iron-fortified foods moderately
While iron-fortified foods are a good addition to the diet in cases of iron deficiency anemia, they are not intended to be taken on a regular basis when your iron levels are normal. If you are required to eat iron-fortified foods to fill in gaps in your diet, choose those that don’t contain hydrogenated oils or sugar.
4) Get your iron from seafoods
Seafoods, like oysters, mussels, tuna, salmon and halibut are low-risk sources of heme iron. In addition, seafoods are healthier than red meat, containing omega-3-fatty acids and other nutrients that are essential for your body’s overall metabolism and brain health. However, you should purchase wild seafoods over farmed ones because of the risk of pesticides/PCBs and mercury toxicity.
5) Buy food-based iron supplements instead of synthetic iron supplements
As mentioned earlier, synthetic iron supplements contain large amounts of heavy metals, which is toxic to the body. Check the labels to see if the iron-supplement is organic or food-based. Also, avoid GMO supplements.
As you can see, it is possible to meet your iron requirements without eating red meat. Make the healthy switch to iron rich foods, plant-based, today!