In my work, I regularly come across families that are looking to reduce their meat intake (to save money, improve their health or just try something different). I commend them on taking action on increasing their intake of "the other" parts of the nutrition pyramid, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. One of the first questions I get asked, is "how do I ensure I get enough iron?", this is particularly important for us ladies, with our monthly cycle having us lose some of our precious haemoglobin. There is no hard and fast answer to this question, but I am going to break it down for you so you have a clear view on what to do to ensure your iron levels (and other important health markers!) are in balance.
Iron in my food?
The foods we eat are amazing, not only do they tantalise our tastebuds, they are full of nutrition that, when digested, get ferried around our body to help repair, grow and maintain our systems to keep us surviving and thriving! One of these nutrients is iron, iron is one of our fundamental building blocks for the human body, it is a component of our blood, it helps the conversion of blood sugar to energy and support many other body systems. Iron is in many foods, the difference is the type of iron, heme-iron (from meat) and non-heme iron (from all other sources). Most of the average dietary intake of iron is non-heme iron.
- Thyme, dried (2.4mg/2g);
- Basil, dried (1.79mg/2g);
- Spearmint, dried (1.75mg/2g);
- Marjoram, dried (1.65mg/2g);
- Seaweed (6.64mg/10g);
- Cumin (1.33mg/2mg);
- Turmeric, powder (1.1mg/2g);
- Parsley (1.1mg/2g);
- Dill, dried (0.98mg/2g);
- Raw beef (meats lose iron levels when cooked) (25mg/100g - cooked).
This top ten shows how important the use of spices are in our diet. Whilst eating a 100g of dried spices is not recommended, adding these to meals is a super boost of iron for you! I have included the standard serving sizes and the related iron contents too. This does put meat as the leader of this Top 10, but once you understand the iron levels you need each day, you will see that subbing out meat from your diet won't leave you anaemic!
- Spirulina (1mg/3.5g);
- Chives (20mg/100g);
- Mushrooms (12.18mg/100g).
- Goji berries (3.4mg/50g);
- Apricots, dried (3.1mg/50g);
- Peaches, dried (2.75mg/50g).
- Sesame seeds (2.68mg/14g);
- Pepitas (4.42mg/50g);
- Hemp seeds (3.97mg/50g).
The absorption issue.
Our bodies are amazing vessels, from the intake of a range of foods, it can extract all the elements it needs to sustain itself. I am amazed each day that our bodies can take a meal, masticate it, digest it and expel it, all the while taking exactly what it needs! Our iron demands vary at different ages and between sexes. The interesting thing is this, the recommended daily intake for iron is quite low, and very easy to achieve! See the RDI below.
Unfortunately, with the modern stressors that we face each day, our digestive systems can sometimes struggle to absorb the building blocks we need to thrive. This can lead to deficiencies, where our body reduces its function due to a lack of a mineral or other key element. An example of this is a meat-eater who simply cannot get enough iron into their body, versus a plant-based person with healthy iron levels. The difference is the body's absorption ability. Iron is absorbed in the body via our digestive tract, and if the digestive tract is compromised, no matter how much iron is in your diet, your levels may remain low.
The key to good iron levels starts with good gut health, which is a topic I will dive into next blog.
The key? Variety!
So how do you keep your iron levels up, whilst maintaining a meat-free or meat-reduced diet? Easy, eat a variety of foods, super boost your meals with spices (curry anyone?), incorporate more seaweed, mushrooms, nuts and seeds into your diet. For example, if your day started with a teaspoon of spirulina, you superboosted your breakfast with some hemp seeds, ate some nut snacks throughout the day and ended with a delicious mushroom curry - you would have squeezed OVER 20mg of iron into your day.
If you are finding your blood tests showing you with an iron deficiency, the first step I recommend is to get your gut health into shape, THEN incorporate the foods that will boost your iron levels. Remember this, iron TOXICITY requires you to eat a lot more food than you can physically eat, toxicity would only come from consuming too much elemental iron, so don't fret!