Iron is essential for our health. Vital for producing the protein haemoglobin, it is iron which helps the oxygenation of our red blood cells and by extension our entire bodies. Our immune systems are in this way also affected by how much or how little iron is present: the lower our iron levels, the more susceptible to colds and other infections we become.
But iron is very easily lost, too. Menstruating women lose a phenomenal amount each month, of course, but all genders lose iron through normal bodily processes as well (such as internal intestinal cell shedding and even sweating). Those who give blood regularly are also at risk. Symptoms of an iron deficiency include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty concentrating
- Cold hands and feet
- Poor appetite
- Brittle nails
- Inflammation of the tongue
The RDA for iron is 18mg/day for menstruating women, 27mg/day for pregnant women (that’s a whole other body that’s being nourished in there!), and 8mg/day for men. This is why eating enough iron-rich food on a daily basis is crucial to maintaining good health. However, there’s the difficulty of knowing how to consume the most ably absorbed sources of iron – and not those foods which prohibit that very absorption at the same time.
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. The former is of animal origin and the latter, plant. Heme is related to haemoglobin and much more efficiently absorbed than non-heme iron. For vegans, it’s a no-brainer that non-heme iron is the only option: unfortunately, it’s also the worst. That, coupled with the high risk of iron-deficiency anaemia on a vegan diet – exacerbated by far fewer vitamin B12 sources – makes knowing which foods to eat plenty of crucially important.
However, for vegetarians, although dairy and eggs do offer quantities of heme iron and vitamin B12, in excess they can also be detrimental to iron levels: eggs contain phosvitin and milk offers calcium, both of which prohibit iron absorption (with milk, this is if drunk in amounts greater than 300mg each day).
It can seem a minefield of information and meal planning, but with a little mental preparation it shouldn’t be overwhelming. In short:
Avoid Iron-Blocking Foods
Oxalic acid is not your friend: step away from the raw spinach. And be wary of the phytic acid in wholegrains and too much dietary fibre, which will pass iron through your digestive system too quickly. If you’ve put together an iron-plentiful supper, be sure to shun any dairy and certainly don’t serve with soda, nor follow up with tea (the oxalate’s the problem) or coffee or chocolate for dessert (the phenolic compounds are the thing…).
If Omnivorous, Opt for the Heme
Meat and fish and other seafood are the best sources of heme iron. If you relish these, then try to buy organically and as sustainably sourced as possible.
If Vegan, Up Those Non-Heme Portion Sizes
Legumes and leafy green vegetables are some of the healthiest foods you can eat on the planet: don’t be afraid to chow down. One tin of beans is equivalent to 8mg of iron, while a single serving of cooked spinach offers 3mg. Think beans and lentils, broccoli and kale, tofu and pumpkin and sesame seeds… Serve with some wholesome brown rice. Delish and iron-tastically invigorating.
Don’t Be Afraid to Go Fortified
Breakfast cereals and breads and even non-dairy milks have been fortified for a reason: to help you meet those RDA guidelines of particularly difficult essential vitamins and minerals. Why not combine the two and have some fridge-cold oat milk on your bran flakes; a bowl of doubly fortified yum?
Vitamin C is Your Friend
Vitamin C aids absorption of iron very well: studies have shown an increase of up to 7%. Therefore, serve your chosen source of iron with a tomato sauce or with bell peppers; pour a glass of orange juice to wash it down with; or opt for berries or citrus fruit for dessert.
Failing the Above, Cook with Cast Iron
The British Dietetic Association has recommended cooking with cast iron pots in order to imbue food with greater quantities of iron. There’s little for it, then: time to get cooking like grandma used to…