Happy Easter! I hope you’re enjoying your long weekend – dining with loved ones, catching up on a few long-forgot jobs, and hopefully getting some fresh O2 in this brilliant weather we’re still having. Our little family is sticking around Auckland over the Easter break after our northern wedding sojourn last week. Also because I’m busy beavering away at an essay on the importance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to our health – a topic which I’m so very fascinated by that I certainly don’t feel hard done by having to sit at my laptop most of the weekend!
This past week I figured you’d no doubt have already been bombarded with chocolate in every shape and form. So instead of sending you yet another chocolate recipe, I thought I’d share with you something a little different, specifically on iron. Think of it as a wee educational soiree in between easter eggs. (Although if you are still in need of some healthier chocolate options this easter, I’ve included a list of my top 10 personal favs at the bottom of this post.)
Iron – the power nutrient
Iron is a super important nutrient to our health, whether you are on a plant-based vegan/vegetarian diet or not. It helps to carry the valuable oxygen from the air we breathe out to our body’s cells, which is then utilised in everything from enabling our muscles to move, to pumping our heart, to fuelling our brain. Iron also helps make up part of our red blood cells, is a coenzyme (ie helping hand) in efficiently turning the food we consume into energy, and helps protect us against viruses and bacteria (aka strengthens our immune system). Without enough iron we can feel tired, lethargic, have a shortened attention span and reduced productivity, and can even be more susceptible to infection. Not what you need when we’re creeping into winter/flu season!
Iron deficiency = the most common nutrient deficiency in the world
Iron is also vital for you to be aware of, because it is the most common nutrient deficiency in the western world, with up to 23% of preschool children, 21% of women and 30% of pregnant women affected. Iron deficiency, or iron deficiency anemia as it’s often called, can occur for a number of reasons:
So where can you find your iron?
In terms of iron-containing foods, we’re often told (most commonly by the beef and lamb industry or via health-pamphlets they’ve sponsored) that the best source of iron is red meat. Not true my friends! In fact, from the nutritional databases I’ve scoured for your benefit, and collated 75 of my top favourite iron sources, red meat doesn’t even make it on the list. Check out the list below for a full array of options for you to choose from, from chickpeas to spirulina to dark chocolate, spices, peanuts, tofu, oats and apricots. There are so many iron-containing foods you’ll be blown away at the selection!
Click on each food below to read more and order from our online store
|1||Dried spices (chilli, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, thyme, mint, basil, cumin, dill, bay leaf, coriander etc)||8-124|
Sesame seeds (unhulled)
Dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa solids)
|15||Potatoes (baked with skin)||7.0|
|18||Sesame seeds (hulled)||6.4|
|28||Chickpea flour (besan)||4.9|
|32||Peanuts / peanut butter||4.6|
|40||White beans (cooked)||3.7|
|43||Wheat (whole grain)||3.6|
|45||Cornmeal / polenta (raw)||3.5|
|55||Pita bread (whole wheat)||3.1|
|59||Kidney beans (cooked)||3.0|
|65||Black beans (cooked)||2.9|
|Beef - if we were to include it, it would come in here||2.9|
|69||Beet greens (raw)||2.6|
|70||Soybeans / edamame (green, cooked)||2.5|
|75||Soy sauce / tamari||2.4|
When you are thinking about consuming your iron-containing foods, there are three simple things to consider. The form it comes in (one of two types), what you should eat it with, and what you shouldn’t.
Heme vs non-heme iron – non-heme makes up the majority of our food!
Iron comes in two forms – heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in meat, with 50-60% of the iron in meat being the heme form. Non-heme iron meanwhile makes up the remainder of meat’s iron content (40-50%), and all of the iron in plant-based foods (ie everything in the table below). Heme iron is more immediately bioavailable for our bodies to absorb, as it has already been converted by the animal into red blood cells and muscle (which we then eat). Non-heme iron in contrast still needs to go through that conversion process in order for us to absorb it properly. Non-heme iron makes up 100% of the iron on a plant-based diet, and around 85% on an omnivorous diet, so is the most important type to consider regardless of your current dietary intake.
Maximise iron absorption by co-consuming vitamin C foods
In order to ensure that you’re absorbing the maximum amount of non-heme iron possible, there are a few key things you’ll want to do. Firstly, eat some vitamin C containing foods with your meals. That doesn’t just mean an orange at every meal, but can be as varied as including broccoli, tomato, capsicum, kiwifruit, strawberries, lemons and any other citrus. A simple salad with tomato and capsicum, sprinkled with some lemon juice and olive oil is a simple way to add vitamin C to your lunch and dinner, while fruits are a great to way to include it at breakfast, snacks and dessert time.
Avoid tea and coffee with meals, and soak where possible (ie where your busy schedule allows!)
Secondly you want to avoid tea and coffee with meals, and rather consume them at least an hour after or before each meal if you have iron deficiency issues. Tea and coffee contain elements (specifically polyphenols and oxalic acid) which inhibit absorption of iron, as well as other nutrients. Phytic acid, present on the outside of whole grains and legumes, is another nutrient which can inhibit absorption, which is why it’s a great idea to soak your grains and legumes where you can (my Falafel Salad recipe from the other week is a brilliant and easy way to try out soaking chickpeas!). Note I don’t always soak every grain/legume/nut that I eat (this girl’s busy yo!), but just that you make an effort to do it on occasion I think is good enough.
What are your favourite iron containing foods? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or over on Facebook. Have you had your iron tested recently, and were you deficient or AOK? Leave your questions below and I’ll be sure to reply with any answers and advice you need.
Oh yes, before I almost forget, those chocolatey treats. Here are my top ten choccie recipes of all time – all healthy, 100% plant-based with no dairy, gluten or refined sugars either. Enjoy friends!
Have a wonderful long weekend, and see you next week. Til then, take care and stay well.