In honor of the Great American Meat-Out, I thought it might be a good idea to consider one of the major challenges facing vegetarians and vegans: how to get enough dietary iron.
While meat-eaters are supposed to consume 8 milligrams of iron (men and older women) and 18 milligrams (pre-menopausal women) respectively, the recommended USDA intake for vegetarian men and post-menopausal women is 14 milligrams and 33 milligrams for pre-menopausal vegetarian women.
Everyone knows that iron is an important part of the diet, but what exactly does it do? Iron is a component of hemoglobin cells, a type of blood cell that is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body, helping organs to function properly and fortifying systems like metabolism, temperature regulation and the immune system. Iron performs the same cell-building function for myoglobin, an oxygen-carrying component of muscle tissue.
So how should vegetarians (and really, all of us) get all of this iron into our bodies? My top ten picks for vegetarian iron sources after the jump.
Our bodies naturally produce and recycle 90% of our needed iron, but 10% is excreted along with other waste and needs to be replaced by ingesting iron-rich foods. Animal-based foods are considered the best iron source because they contain 40% heme-iron, which is the type of iron that is more easily absorbed by the human body. While this type of eating is more efficient in its iron yield (less volume of food ingested per unit of iron absorbed), it would be a stretch to call it the “best.” Nonheme-iron – the type found in plant-based sources – does not convert to an inferior type of iron in the body, it is simply less bioavailable. This simply means that more nonheme iron-rich food must be ingested by volume than in a meat eating (heme iron-rich) scenario. Clearly, this is the reasoning behind the disparity in recommended iron intakes between vegetarian and meat-eating populations. But despite the veggie theme, we can all benefit from the fewer calories, less fat and less cholesterol that comes from vegetarian iron sources. Here are some good choices.
Top Ten Best Vegetarian Iron Sources:
1. Farina (or Cream of Wheat to some of us) offers an astonishing 7.9 mg of iron per 1/2 cup without the assistance of the imposed “fortification” that is found in other iron-rich cereals and breads.
2. Blackstrap molasses packs a powerful 7 mg in 2 tablespoons and is pretty sinful-tasting. Nothing more decadent (but responsible!) than consuming one’s iron via a lush ribbon of sugar syrup.
3. Lentils offer 6.6 per cup and can be enjoyed as raw sprouts, cooked with grains or pureed.
4. Delicious raw pumpkin seeds offer 6.5 mg per 1/2 cup.
5. Cooked quinoa has 6.3 mg per cup and makes a nice, protein-rich alternative to farina.
6. Soybeans. The real stuff – no wasabe-roasted snack edamame or tofu-based cheddar cheese or even those wonderfully slimy tofu-strawberry-lime desserts (though, seriously, don’t those things taste like junket?) Get some whole edamame and steam them for 4.5-7 mg. Or sauté 4 ounces of tofu for 6 mg of protein.
7. Not the most pleasant in my opinion but nonetheless effective, prune juice offers some good iron. 5.2 mgs per half-cup, to be exact.
8. Popeye’s fave, Spinach. Cooked spinach is preferable because there is more volume per serving. In other words, 1/2 cup of cooked spinach contains 4.5 – 7 mg of dietary iron, whereas 1/2 cup of raw spinach contains only 1 mg. Long cooktimes leach nutrients from most food sources, so a light blanching or wilting will provide an optimum iron count.
9. Dried peaches offer more than any other dehydrated (or hydrated…) fruit, with 5 mg per 1/2 cup.
10. Kidney/Pinto/Garbanzo/White Beans. They really are good for your heart! By helping the body build haemoglobin cells, they provide the heart with oxygen. A half-cup yields 1.8 – 4.3 mg.
Other iron-enhancing practices include cooking with a cast iron pan, which leaches iron into the cooking food. Also, by ingesting foods rich in vitamin C along with veggie iron sources, you can improve the absorption of iron by your body. This is as simple as drinking a glass of grapefruit juice with farina cereal for breakfast or adding a side of broccoli and sweat potato with your tofu steak.
Given the attention that many (perhaps most?) vegetarians and vegans give to their diet, it is incorrect to assume that as a group they have more iron deficiency. By balancing meals carefully, veggies can enjoy optimum hematological health.