As some of my blog readers know, I’m currently working on adding health and nutrition coaching services to my livelihood as a freelance writer. It’s something I’m passionate about and since I already write in the food and health fields, it’s a good fit.
One of the most frequent requests I get from female friends and potential clients is around ways to increase iron in their diet. Most have been told by their doctors that their iron levels are low or “of concern”. They are then left to their own devices to struggle with how to work more iron into their diet.
Iron is an important component of our blood, where it helps carry oxygen to our muscles. One of the early symptoms or iron deficiency is lack of energy. Low iron can also affect our ability to think clearly and our ability to regulate body temperature. The average woman needs 18 grams of iron in her diet.
Back when I was vegetarian, I was very conscious of getting enough iron in my diet and made sure to regularly include good vegetarian sources of iron in my diet, such as spinach, lentils and quinoa. Given that not everyone is interested in a vegetarian diet, I figured I should brush up on some other sustainable sources of iron. Wow, was I in for a surprise. Not only is one of the best sources of iron not beef or liver (as the meat industry propaganda would have you believe), but it’s also a sustainable one: farmed clams! Who knew?
According to the USDA nutrition database, 3 ounces of cooked clams have 24 grams of iron. They are also great sources of protein, calcium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. For some reason the value drops in canned clams to about 6 grams per cup, but that’s still pretty good. (Although I’m not sure I could eat a cup of clams.) Like other molluscs, clams are filter feeders so they are sensitive to pollution. Try to buy clams from areas that are likely to not be from heavily polluted waters. In the US, clam farms are monitored for pollution. Other sustainable seafood sources for iron are farmed mussels and oysters, and pacific sardines from Canada or the US.
Here are some recipes:
- Spaghetti Vongole from JamieOliver.com
- Linguini with White Clam Sauce from Poor Man’s Date Night
- New England Clam Chowder from Eating Well
- Greek Salad with Sardine from Eating Well
Vegetarian choices rich in iron include baked beans, soy beans, edamame, lentils, cooked spinach, quinoa, tofu, black beans. A single cup of these (or 1/2 cup of tofu) will supply at least 20% of the daily iron requirement for an adult female. Pumpkin seeds are also a pretty good high-iron snack (watch the calories though). Vegetarian sources of iron are not as well absorbed as non-vegetarian sources. Eating food rich in vitamin C at the same time can help increase iron absorption. Fortunately, many plant-based food rich in iron are also good sources of vitamin C. In contrast calcium and tannins reduce iron absorption, so avoid tea, coffee or lots of dairy products with your meal.
Here are some vegetarian recipes:
- Lentil and Quinoa Salad from Ten Dollar Dinners
- espinacas con garbanzos from Smitten Kitchen
- Baked Beans from Canadian Living
- Spiced Carrot and Lentil Soup from BBC Good Food
- Black Bean Chili from BBC Good Food
Beef is considered an excellent source of iron, but it’s not really that much higher than strong vegetable sources of iron per serving. For example, according to the USDA nutrient database, a lean quarter-pound beef burger contains about 2 grams of iron (192 calories and 12 grams of fat), compared to half a cup of cooked lentils which contain 3.3 grams of iron (70 calories and 0.3 grams of fat). Even taking into account that iron from meat sources (heme iron) is more readily absorbed than iron from plant sources (non-heme iron), the lentils are probably still coming out ahead of the burger. The lentils are definitely winning if you also consider environmental impact of the ingredient.
Liver and kidney are good sources of iron, and generally lower in fat and calories than beef and other red meats. Chicken and turkey aren’t really good sources of iron, however duck meat is.
As usual, consider your sources when buying meat, even duck. There are lots of small, often organic, farms raising animals with a conscientious eye to the environment and animal welfare. Check out my GoogleMap of shops around Montreal with organic and local meats options, or one of my various lists of farmers’ markets around the city.
Do you watch the iron in your diet? How do you make sure you’re getting enough while still eating sustainably?