As promised, one of my goals this summer is to highlight vitamins and minerals and help everyone understand what they are, where you get them, and why they are important. I am going to start out with iron. Since I eat a mostly plant-based diet, iron is often on my mind to ensure that my children are getting enough. I should probably worry about my husband and I, but we eat larger portions, so I don’t worry about us as much.
Iron is one of those minerals that everyone knows, but you probably never worry about getting enough. If you’re a carnivore and subscribe to the philosophy of “meat and potatoes” every night, you are definitely getting more than enough iron. For those of us that don’t eat meat everyday, getting enough iron can be tricky. I would assume that most people don’t even know the plant-based sources of iron without googling it.
Why do we need it? Simple. We need iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is contained in red blood cells and helps transport oxygen and carbon dioxide. It also is a component of myoglobin, which provides oxygen to muscles and it supports metabolism, growth, development, and normal function of cells in the body.
When iron is low enough to be detected, it is called anemia. It’s the most common nutritional deficiency and iron deficiency is the leading cause of anemia in the United States. Someone with anemia would experience fatigue, weakness, headaches, dizziness, pale skin and fingernail beds, and possibly an inflamed tongue.
There are two types of dietary iron, heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal products and the majority of non-heme iron is found in plant products. Sources of heme iron are lean beef, oysters, turkey, chicken and fish. Sources of non-heme iron include beans and lentils, fortified cereals and breads, dried fruits, and dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach.
Heme iron is well absorbed in the body, but non-heme iron is not. To increase the absorption of non-heme iron, eat it with a heme iron source, or with food that contains vitamin C. Vitamin C helps the body absorb non-heme iron.
Rest assured that you do not need to eat meat to get the iron you need every day. Some sources of iron and the amount of iron in each are the following (this list is not inclusive of all iron containing foods):
Breakfast cereals that are fortified with iron – up to 100% of daily value (DV), 18 mg
Oysters, 3 ounces: – 8 mg
White beans, canned, 1 cup – 8 mg
Chocolate, dark, 45-69% cacao solids, 3 ounces – 7 mg
Spinach, boiled and drained, 1/2 cup – 3 mg
Kidney beans, 1/2 cup – 2 mg
Beef, 3 ounces – 2 mg
Chicken, roasted, 3 ounces – 1 mg
Raisins, 1/4 cup – 1 mg
***learn to read food labels and pay attention to the amount of iron you consume in one day. Also, do not take an iron supplement unless told to do so by your doctor.