You probably know that iron is a required nutrient in your diet. But why? And are you getting enough? Where can you get it? Don’t you need to eat lots of meat to get enough iron?
Role of Iron in the Body
Iron is used by each cell in your body for metabolic processes required for life. It also helps transport oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body because of it’s presence in hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is part of red blood cells. Deficiency can result in fatigue, weakened immunity, and in infants can result in developmental problems.
- Soy products
- Potato with skin
- Quinoa (a grain, pronounced “KEEN wah”)
Cooking on cast iron can also increase your iron intake markedly to healthy levels, adding 2-5 mg or more depending on your serving size and the food you’re cooking (3).
Below: My steadfast cast iron skillet. I love it’s weight, although it can be hard to lift.
Vegetarians may need more iron than ominvores. This is because the iron found in plant foods is less bioavailable – the body cannot access it as easily. In fact, you’d have to eat almost twice as much iron from plant sources as animal sources to absorb the same amount of iron. This doesn’t mean vegetarian diets are inferior — vegans have no more cases of iron deficiency than non-vegans (1). Why is this?
Firstly, iron is found in many different foods. Also, eating vitamin C-rich foods with plant-based iron increases its absorption by multiple factors, completely negating and reversing the effects of plant-based iron’s lower absorption rate (2). Luckily, plants are often rich in vitamin C, which is a great example of how the nutrients in a plant-based diet work together to provide you what you need. This is very common in our diets – a diverse diet provides many complementary nutrient interactions.
Below – Uncooked quinoa, which is rich in iron. Quinoa has a mild, somewhat nutty flavor. It’s very fluffy when cooked and combines well with many ingredients. Since it’s soft and fluffy, something crunchy is usually a good thing to mix in with it.
Women who are menstruating need more iron than men. A lot more in fact. Men need 8 mg per day and women of childbearing age need 18 mg due to iron losses from menstruation. The daily value (DV) for iron is set at 18 mg, in fact, so when you read a nutrition label and it says the food provides 8% of the DV for iron, you can just about double that if you’re a guy. People in growth phases (pregnant women, adolescents) have increased needs beyond what you’d expect for their body size (4).