Iron: What’s best to eat if not meat?

November 29, 2012

We do our best to keep our engines running and our energy levels up high but no matter what we try, some of us just have a difficult time staying awake and finding the energy to do even the simplest things. Sure, there are several reasons that can cause these issues among the many people who experience them on a daily basis, but in this article we will focus on one possible reason; low iron levels.

If you suspect that your lack of energy could be caused by low iron levels, bring it up with your doctor as there is a simple blood test that could be done to find out. If your iron levels and/or iron stores are low, then the first course of action is to start consuming more iron and see if things improve.

You can find iron in both animal and plant foods. Animal sources (called “heme iron”) include meat, fish and poultry. Our bodies easily absorb this type of iron. Plant sources (called “non-heme iron”) include dried beans, peas and lentils and some fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, non-heme iron is not as readily absorbed into our bodies and that is the reason why vegans and vegetarians have to be concerned about their iron intake.

Cooking some of these vegetables, such as spinach (a relatively significant source of iron) can help unlock these iron absorption inhibitors and hence increase iron bio-availability. In other words, cooking spinach helps make iron more available to your body. Certain plant sources of iron contain an inhibitor called oxalic acid or oxalate. Oxalic acid naturally binds with minerals like calcium and iron, making them harder for the body to absorb. In Canada, grain products like flour, pasta and breakfast cereals are fortified with iron but our bodies better absorb this type of iron when taken along with meat/chicken/fish or a source of vitamin C. Vitamin C rich foods include citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers. White wine may also enhance the absorption of iron from plant sources.

Raw Spinach (1 cup) Cooked Spinach (1 cup)
Iron (mg) 0.8 6.5
Calcium (mg) 30 245

As the above numbers indicate, cooked spinach would be a better choice! Also, please note that water-soluble vitamins are lost during boiling. Therefore, the best way to cook spinach and other similar vegetables is by steaming or dry cooking it like microwave cooking or stir-frying.