Eating more meat is the only way to add more iron to your diet?
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
If you are anemic or have low iron levels, the only way to add more iron to your diet is by eating more meat, particularly red meat.
WHAT WE KNOW
Iron is an essential nutrient because it is a central part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. It also plays a vital role in many metabolic reactions. Iron deficiency can cause anemia resulting from low levels of hemoglobin in the blood. Iron deficiency is the most widespread mineral nutrient deficiency worldwide. It is especially common in young women and children.
Iron comes in different forms that are absorbed differently by the body in different kinds of foods. The bioavailability, or how easy it is for the body to use, differs among the different sources for iron and on nutrients in other foods you eat with the iron source. Iron absorption increases in the presence of vitamin C. Iron absorption also depends on the body’s current need for iron.
The iron found in animal proteins is the most bioavailable form; this means that meat is the richest source of iron for the body. It is possible with planning, however, to get all the iron your body needs from non-red-meat sources. Given that animal proteins are expensive, that diets high in animal proteins are often also typically high in saturated fat and cholesterol, that high-protein diets can increase calcium loss thereby compromising bone health, and red meat (especially processed meats such as ham and salami) is linked to colon cancer, it is worthwhile learning how to increase your iron from non-red-meat sources.
The next greatest source of iron is bakery products, including breads and cereals. Most of the iron in these products is iron that has been added as part of the enrichment process. This makes the product a “fortified” product. In addition, many vegetables, like leafy greens and beans, and dried fruit contain iron that the body can use. The iron in these foods is not absorbed as well as that in animal protein, but iron absorption is increased by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron.
HOW DO WE KNOW THIS?
The key role of vitamin C in the absorption of dietary iron is generally accepted. The reasons for its action are twofold: (1) the prevention of the formation of unabsorbable iron compounds and (2) the reduction of ferric to ferrous iron, which seems to be a requirement for the absorption of iron in the digestive tract.
One recommended strategy is to consume vitamin C with any meal that combines iron-rich plant foods. Fortunately, many vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy, which are high in iron, are also high in vitamin C so that the iron in these foods can be easily absorbed. Commonly eaten combinations, such as beans and tomato sauce or stir-fried tofu and broccoli, also result in generous levels of iron absorption. Iron is available everywhere you look in the plant world. Rich sources include whole or enriched breads and cereals, beans, nuts and seeds, dark green, leafy vegetables, and some dried fruits.
All fruits and vegetables contain some vitamin C, but certain fruits and vegetable provide more than others. Citrus fruits, potatoes, and green vegetables, tomatoes and tomato juice all contain vitamin C. For more information on the iron content in fruits and vegetables, check out these quick nutrition charts: Most Popular Fruits | Most Popular Vegetables
Cooking in iron pots and skillets can also add iron to the diet, particularly if vitamin C rich foods are cooked in them. A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement containing iron and/or an iron-fortified breakfast cereal can also be useful for increasing iron intake.