When it comes to health, balance is always key. One of the main reasons a balanced diet is so important is because food provides us with our main source of vitamins and nutrients – the pillars of good health. Iron is especially important, which is why we owe it to ourselves to take a moment to understand some of the basics when it comes to getting more iron into our diet.
What is iron and why do we need it?
Iron is a vital element. The majority of our iron is found in red blood cells known as hemoglobin and in the cells of muscles, called myoglobin. These iron-rich cells are important in the transportation and transference of oxygen from the lungs to tissue throughout the body. Without iron, the blood and rest of the body may suffer from a lack of oxygen. In severe cases, depleted levels of iron may lead to anemia, which is associated with mild to severe symptoms, including brittle nails, headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and palpitations.
There are two types of iron: heme iron and nonheme iron. Heme iron comes from hemoglobin and myoglobin, it is easily absorbed by the body, and mostly comes from animal products such as meat, fish, and poultry. Non- heme iron is found primarily in plant foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, grains, and tofu. Nonheme iron is not as readily absorbed by the body.
In addition to iron found naturally in foods, some foods have iron added to them, commercially known as “fortified foods.” Common foods that have been fortified with iron are breads, pasta, cereals, and some types of flour.
What is the best way to consume iron?
Though it is possible to get iron in the form of supplements, we recommend meeting your iron needs through food first. Some of our favorite iron-rich foods include spinach, legumes, seafood, and quinoa.
If you’re looking for a way to include spinach in your diet, try starting your day right with our Spinach and Cheese Omelet. This quick and easy meal is sure to give you the energy boost you need to begin your day. As a fun summery option, our Quinoa Stuffed tomatoes are a must-try option. Tomatoes which are rich in Vitamin C are also known to help with the absorption of iron.
For those looking for something to satisfy a little later in the day, we recommend trying Ann’s famous Matelote de Poissons – French Seafood Stew. For an excellent iron packed salad be sure to try our Black and White Bean Salad.
Red meat is also a well-known source of iron, but it is important to moderate your red meat consumption as many studies link it to higher rates of cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests consuming no more than 12 to 18 ounces of cooked red meat per week. For perspective, three ounces is a serving and is roughly the size of an adult palm, which allows for 4 to 6 servings of red meat per week.
How to get the most out of your meal?
The term “bioavailability” describes the amount of a substance our body is able to absorb when consumed. In relation to iron, heme sources of iron from foods are more easily absorbed, while nonheme iron is harder for our bodies to absorb. Foods containing ascorbic acid – also known as Vitamin C – have been shown to enhance the absorption of nonheme iron from foods. Examples of foods with Vitamin C are found in citrus fruits and juices, bell peppers, kiwis, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.
When it comes to preparing foods like spinach, studies have shown that cooked spinach, compared to uncooked, has greater amounts of bioavailable iron. Cooking with a cast iron skillet has also been shown to improve iron intake since small amounts of iron from the skillet make their way into our food are actually bioavailable to us.
It is also important to note is that dairy products and other calcium-rich foods have been found to inhibit the amount of iron absorption. So, if you’re trying to increase your iron levels, avoid consuming dairy products at the same time you are eating your iron-rich foods.
Our recommendation is to meet your daily iron needs through whole food sources first. If you are experiencing signs and symptoms of iron deficiency, make sure you check with your health care provider before adding an iron supplement.