Iron is a very important micronutrient for the body helping with oxygen transport around the body, immune health, metabolism and overall energy. Anemia is a consequence of prolonged iron deficiency which can be caused by a number of reasons and those who suffer from iron deficiency will feel tired, lethargic, have a poor immune function and basically no energy.
We often associate iron-rich foods with meat – which is for a reason – red meat particularly lamb and beef are a great source of iron which is in the “haem form” most easily absorbed by the body. Other meat, chicken and fish are also great iron-containing foods. Plant-based sources of iron contain “non-haem iron” which is less readily absorbed by the body, but this doesn’t mean its any less of value! We can get discouraged from eating non-meat sources of iron because we may think there is no point if I cannot absorb it as well, but this is where the myth goes a little bit wrong.
Sure, meat has been shown to contain the haem iron which is more readily and efficiently absorbed by the body as the meat contains all the necessary enzymes and cofactors for efficient breakdown and uptake of iron into the bloodstream from the gut. Plant-based non-haem iron sources such as legumes, nuts, seeds, breads and cereals (more shown below) have to undergo an extra step to allow the uptake of iron into the bloodstream, but this can be done more efficiently and effectively with a few dietary changes. Non-haem iron-containing foods are not any less value, if your body needs iron it will increase its absorption of these foods but it just takes a little bit extra effort, so there are some things you can do to help your body out around meals.
Including dietary sources of vitamin C before, during or after iron-rich meals can increase iron absorption as the vitamin C assists with reducing the iron into its absorbable form. Things such as tomatoes, berries, strawberries, kiwi fruits, broccoli, squeezing lime and lemon juice on meals can all help increase the iron absorption. Take a look at my vitamin C post for more information on foods rich in vitamin C. Also, eliminating things like tea, coffee and even green tea ~2 hours before and after meals can help iron absorption as these contain tannins that block the absorption of iron.
Overall, make sure you include a wide variety of iron in your diet and if you are ever feeling tired or lethargic for a long period of time, a blood test from your doctor can be really beneficial to see where your iron levels are sitting. Whether you are a meat-eater or a non-meat eater that honestly does not matter, but remember some of these tips and tricks to enhance your iron absorption if you think you might need it!