When it comes to working out and trying to build strength, nothing can thwart your efforts more than feeling exhausted. And if you’re falling short on iron, you may be feeling sluggish and find it difficult to muster up the strength to get through a workout—and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have enough energy to get to your workout in the first place. So, if you’re wondering what iron can do for you and what you can do to boost your iron intake, here is the advice we offer our own clients.
Iron carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body and it also helps to remove excess carbon dioxide. Because oxygen is a gas that plays a critical role in helping to create energy (and that keeps our cells alive), if you find yourself complaining of fatigue, weakness, dizziness and/or headaches or if you have pale skin or fingernails/ brittle nails, or feel cold frequently, one of the things you may want to get tested for is iron deficiency anemia (also known as iron deficiency). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 10% of women are iron deficient.
Iron in Vegetarians vs. Carnivores
Although we’re plant-based dietitian nutritionists and advocate eating a diet heavily based on plant foods for many health benefits, when it comes to getting enough iron, carnivores have an advantage because meat contains more iron than plant-based foods. Plus, iron from plants, called non-heme iron, is absorbed only half as well as iron from meats, called heme iron. Therefore, vegetarians need to get twice as much iron in their diets. Meat eaters need 8-18 mg of iron per day (menstruating women needing closer to 18 mg because they lose iron-rich blood monthly), while vegetarians need 14-33 mg per day.
The Healthiest Iron-rich Foods
Black Beans (and all beans!)
Why You Should Eat Them: Like all pulses (dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas) black beans are protein-packed, nutrient power-houses that are also rich in antioxidants. A 1/2-cup serving of cooked black beans contains 1.5 times as much iron as 3 ounces of flank steak. Try these delicious recipes using black beans:
One-Pot Black Bean Quinoa Chili with Avocados
Black Bean Patties
Why You Should Eat It: Turkey breast is a good source of heme iron, which is more easily absorbed than plant (non-heme) iron. It’s lean, satisfying and a great source of protein, and low in artery-clogging saturated fat, so it’s ideal if you’re trying to lose weight. Plus, you can easily get a turkey sandwich at almost every diner or deli, although we recommend going for fresh-sliced versus deli meat whenever possible to avoid possible nitrates and nitrites and keep the sodium down.
Why You Should Eat It: Packed with fiber, this cruciferous vegetable is rich in phytonutrients that are touted for fighting many cancers, including breast cancer. It’s a go-to veggie for many vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, so it’s an easy way to get extra iron. Try this broccoli-centric recipe: Spicy “Fried” Broccoli
Why You Should Eat It: Pumpkin seeds add crunch and texture to salads, muffins, granolas and bread, and their rich flavor is enticing and encourages people to eat more of the healthy foods that they are often added to. Plus, pumpkin seeds—known as pepitas—are a good source of healthy fat. They also contain omega-3 fatty acids that help to fight inflammation and keep the body healthy. Try this recipe: Grapefruit Avocado and Kale Salad with Pepitas
Why You Should Eat It: Like all pulses, dried peas are a good source of iron that is packed with protein and fiber, plus they’re versatile, sustainable and affordable. One serving of dried peas contains as much potassium as a banana. They add a lot of flavor to dishes—try adding them to salads, homemade granola or smoothie bowls, use them to thicken soups and gravies, make veggie burgers and fritters, or incorporate into pasta sauce or guacamole, hummus or baked potatoes. You can even use them in desserts, as in this recipe: Chickpea Blondies
Salmon (other iron-rich seafood includes clams, mussels, mollusks, oysters, sardines, halibut, salmon and tuna.)
Why You Should Eat It: Packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is the perfect food to calm inflammation and fight diseases like heart disease. Try to choose wild salmon to limit your exposure to toxins like PCBs.
Do Coffee & Tea Drinkers Experience More Anemia?
Although we haven’t seen research that directly links coffee and tea drinkers to more cases of anemia, be aware that if you tend to drink coffee or tea with your meals, you may want to cut back a bit as you absorb as much as 40% less iron with coffee and as much as 70% less iron when you drink tea.
A Booster Shot of Iron?
When it comes to naturally helping your body to absorb more iron, vitamin C works magically to do just that. The secret to ensuring that vitamin C acts as an iron booster is to eat a vitamin C- rich food in the same meal as a non-heme iron-rich one (vitamin C doesn’t enhance the iron absorption in heme iron sources). This is especially important for vegetarians who need all the iron they can get, so if you’re eating broccoli, squeeze vitamin C-rich lemon on it; if you’re eating iron-fortified cereal, top it with vitamin C-rich berries; and if you’re eating iron-rich beans with rice, enjoy it with vitamin C-rich tomatoes. Other great sources of vitamin C include oranges, potatoes, strawberries, bell peppers and Brussels sprouts.
To Supplement or Not?
It’s not a good idea to take iron supplements in doses higher than what you’d get in a multi-vitamin. Don’t take more than 45 mg of iron daily unless you know for sure that you’re iron deficient, and are under the care of a doctor or registered dietitian. Higher levels can be toxic, primarily for those with an inherited condition called hemochromatosis that makes it difficult to regulate iron in the body. For the rest of the population, iron supplements may cause constipation and stomach upset.