Is there such a thing as too much iron? Who is at greatest risk of iron deficiency? Should I get it from plants or meat? Your iron-related questions answered.
Even though dietary iron isn’t the same type of iron that adds strength to bridges and skyscrapers, iron helps us feel strong, too — something you may not notice unless you’ve struggled with iron deficiency. Iron is a critical component of your red blood cells, so if you’re deficient in iron, your blood can’t deliver enough oxygen to your cells. Iron deficiency can eventually lead to fatigue, brain fog and other symptoms. It can also impair your immune system.
Even though most people get enough iron, many don’t. It’s easier for men, for whom the adequate intake is only 8 milligrams (mg) of iron daily. Women need more than twice that much — 18 mg per day — and those needs increase to 27 mg during pregnancy.
We can get iron from animal foods as well as plant foods, and while it’s a common belief that iron from meat, poultry and seafood is better, that’s not necessarily true. Seafood, meat and poultry contain two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Plants contain only non-heme iron, as do most iron supplements. The richest plant sources of non-heme iron are pulses (beans, lentils, soy) and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens. Other plant sources include whole grains, nuts and dried fruit. Many breakfast cereals are also fortified with iron.
We absorb iron from animal foods more easily, largely because meat, fish and poultry contain a yet-to-be-identified factor (called MFP factor) that boosts iron absorption. Conveniently, MFP factor also helps you absorb non-heme iron from plant foods in the same meal. Pairing iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus, tomatoes or peppers, increases absorption, too.
Here are a few iron-improving tips to try:
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• Dark leafy greens sautéed with lemon and garlic (see recipe).
• Serve a smaller serving of meat, fish or poultry with a pile of green veggies and a side of beans or whole grains.
• Cook in cast iron, which allows some iron to leach into your food — especially if you are cooking something acidic, like tomato sauce.
• If you tend to have low iron and enjoy black tea, drink tea between meals instead of with meals, as the tannins in black tea interfere with iron absorption. The same is true with coffee, but to a lesser extent.
One of the beauties of non-heme iron is that we only absorb it if our bodies need it, whereas we absorb heme iron whether we need it or not. According to the National Institutes of Health, women are much less likely than men to be getting enough iron.
Who specifically might be at increased risk of iron deficiency?
• Pregnant women. Women need more iron during pregnancy because of the dramatic increases in blood volume. When iron deficiency happens during pregnancy, it’s extremely difficult to pull out of it, which is one reason why experts recommend that women space pregnancies at least 18 months apart. This allows enough time to replenish the body’s stores of iron.
• Infants and young children. This is more likely if infants are preterm, have a low birthweight, or were born to a mother who is iron deficient.
• Frequent blood donors. About 25-35 percent of frequent blood donors develop iron deficiency.
• Women who have heavy menstrual periods. The more blood you lose each month, the more iron you lose.
• Individuals with cancer or gastrointestinal disorders.
While it’s important to get enough iron, more is not better. A little too much could cause nausea and constipation, while a lot too much could be toxic. That’s why it’s important to keep supplements containing higher doses of iron out of the reach of children.
Sautéed Greens with Garlic, Lemon and Olive Oil
Note: I recommend briefly blanching the greens first, as it provides a more tender final dish. Plus, if you blanch a batch of greens on Sunday, you can quickly finish them off in a skillet on a busier weeknight (I sometimes do a double batch for this reason). But if blanching is just not your thing, skip steps 2 and 3.
1 pound fresh kale, collards, Swiss chard or beet greens
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large or two small cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Optional: ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1. Wash, rinse and remove stems from the greens.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare a medium-to-large bowl of ice water. When the water comes to a boil, add 1 tablespoon of salt, then add the greens.
3. After 2 minutes (or when the greens appear tender), transfer the greens to the bowl of ice water (use tongs or a wire strainer). When greens are cool enough to handle, grab a handful of leaves and squeeze out the water. Repeat until all the greens are squeezed.
4. Chop the greens coarsely. In a large, heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes (if using) and stir until the garlic is fragrant, about 30-60 seconds.
5. Add the greens to the pan and stir for a few minutes until they are coated with the oil. If you opted to not blanch the greens, it might take an extra minute of cooking time to wilt them to your liking. Sprinkle with the lemon juice, stir, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve.