Iron is a vital mineral for our body. We’ll tell you what foods you can get it from to prevent iron deficiency or restore normal iron levels in the case of iron deficiency anemia.
Why do we need iron?
Iron is a mineral widely distributed in the body because it forms an essential part of proteins such as hemoglobin and myoglobin, which are responsible for carrying and storing oxygen. This mineral enters our cells through food, so a low intake of iron-rich foods can lead to one of the most widespread nutritional deficiencies in the world: iron deficiency anemia.
Iron in food
Iron is found in many foods, but not all iron is equally bioavailable, i.e., not all iron is absorbed equally. Only 10-15% of dietary iron is estimated to be absorbed in the gut.
There are two types of iron:
- Heme iron: is the iron contained in foods of animal origin, as it is mainly found in myoglobin and myoglobin. It is highly bioavailable and accounts for over a third of absorbed iron.
- Non-heme iron: found in foods of plant origin and iron-fortified foods, it makes up the majority of iron in the diet. However, its bioavailability is very low because it is in a form that can interact with other food components, which affects its absorption.
On the other hand, foods contain components that can activate or inhibit iron absorption, affecting iron levels in the body. The presence of these activators or inhibitors can affect the absorption of non-heme iron by up to ten times.
Some of them are:
- Activators of iron absorption: fruit acids such as citric, ascorbic, or malic acid, and proteins from animal tissues (meat, fish, poultry).
- Inhibitors of iron absorption: some minerals such as calcium, manganese, some egg proteins, phytates (in legumes, whole grains), oxalates (in spinach), and tannins from coffee, tea, cocoa, and some vegetables.
We’ve always been told that spinach contains a lot of iron. However, spinach’s fame is due to a miscalculation that has, over the years, given this undue vegetable fame that it has not deserved without wishing to diminish it.
Myths aside, the truth is that there are other foods with much more iron than spinach. Therefore it is better to include them in the diet when it is necessary to increase their intake (people with anemia, with symptoms of fatigue, and women during menstruation who consume little iron).
These are the main foods rich in iron:
- Lean red meat: veal, beef.
- Shellfish: especially cockles, clams, and mussels.
- Liver, tripe, and black pudding.
- Nuts: cashew nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, roasted almonds.
- Sesame, pumpkin seeds, and quinoa.
- Green leafy vegetables: watercress, chard, spinach, broccoli.
- Whole grains: wheat, bread, rice, oat bread.
- Dark chocolate.
Foods to avoid when consuming iron
When consuming foods rich in iron, it is preferable to avoid the following products, as they can hinder the proper absorption of this mineral:
- Tea (tannic acid).
- Egg yolk.
- Fiber (dietary supplements).
- Soy protein.
- Certain minerals such as zinc, magnesium, calcium, or copper.
It should be noted that this in no way means that these are not healthy foods, but it is better not to combine them if you need to boost your iron levels. For example, you can drink tea or milk between meals.
Recommendations for the prevention of iron deficiency
A varied and balanced diet provides enough iron to prevent iron deficiency. However, some populations require special attention due to their special needs, such as children and infants, adolescents, women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and the elderly.
Promoting breastfeeding in infants and eating iron-rich foods in combination with foods containing iron-enhancing substances will ensure optimal iron stores.
Here are some recommendations for preventing iron deficiency:
- Eat lean red meat once a week: heme iron and animal protein will increase iron absorption.
- For the rest of the week, combine the consumption of poultry, fish, and eggs as sources of protein and iron.
- Include legumes (soybeans, beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.) high in iron at least once a week.
- Limit fiber supplements and do not abuse whole grain cereals, whole wheat bread, or bran, as they can prevent complete iron absorption.
- Limit tea, coffee, vinegar, or wine consumption as they inhibit iron absorption.
- Use shellfish (clams, mussels, cockles…) in your dishes. It is a good idea to include them in recipes with pasta, rice, or salads.
- Avoid eating iron-rich foods with foods containing iron absorption inhibitors in the same meal.
- When eating iron-rich foods, encourage the consumption of vitamin C-rich foods (oranges, tangerines, kiwis) for dessert or in sauces, as they help absorption and provide a healthy flavor boost.
- Garnish meat, fish, or vegetables with parsley and squeezed lemon, which improves the body’s iron acquisition.
Iron-rich diet for iron deficiency anemia
In iron deficiency anemia, iron-containing dietary supplements are commonly prescribed to restore iron stores in the body. However, combining medical treatment with a special iron-rich diet is important until iron levels are restored. To this end, it is important to encourage the consumption of iron-rich foods.
Here are a few ways to include them in your meals:
Combine iron- and vitamin C-rich vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, chard, spinach, and tomatoes. Add them to rice, pasta, or legumes as salads or stir-fried dishes.
Red meat will be your ally, but it’s important to choose lean cuts to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol as much as possible. Ideally, it should be eaten three to four times a week (remember, we’re talking about a therapeutic iron-rich diet; in a balanced diet for a healthy person, eating red meat is estimated at once a week).
To avoid boredom, in addition to the typical grilled steaks, you can grind the meat to make hamburgers, meatballs, or bolognese sauce, cut it into strips to fry with vegetables, or prepare it as a kebab.
Canned or fresh shellfish can be combined. Just remember that an 80g can of clams has almost 13mg of iron (to give you an idea, a healthy woman of childbearing age needs 18mg daily).
Include the following fruits in desserts: orange, tangerine, grapefruit, melon, papaya, strawberries, kiwi, or pineapple, whose vitamin C and citric acid will improve the absorption of non-heme iron.