Teachers in our schools are supplied with a multitude of resources from the closely aligned meat and dairy industries. These materials are designed to establish in children’s minds the idea that we must eat meat to obtain iron and that cow’s milk is essential for bone building in humans. Neither of these industry-derived fabrications is true, but if you are still haunted by these rusty facts, read the solid update concerning iron that follows. (See next month’s column for an update on calcium.)
Iron is a “precious metal” when it comes to human health. As part of our blood cells, it plays a central role in transporting oxygen throughout the body, releasing this life-giving sub-stance where needed and carrying away the metabolic waste product carbon dioxide. As part of many enzyme systems, iron also plays key roles in the production of cellular energy, immune system functioning and in the mental processes surrounding learning and behaviour.
Every day, we lose miniscule amounts of iron in cells that are sloughed from skin and intestinal walls. We recycle our body’s iron supply and those losses must be replaced. Women of childbearing age lose additional iron during menstruation. The building of new cells can deplete the small reserves of infants and children. With teens, there can be the double challenge of growth and notoriously poor eating habits (though vegetarian teens tend to eat better than non-vegetarian teens). The most prevalent nutritional deficiency in North America is that of iron and the most susceptible groups are women of childbearing age, teens and young children.
Naturally, those who experience blood loss for any reason – people with ulcers or blood donors – have increased needs and athletes have high requirements due to increased oxygen demands.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include exhaustion, sensitivity to cold, irritability and pale skin. (These symptoms may have other causes as well.) If you have doubts about your iron status, have your hemoglobin, serum iron and transferrin (iron transport protein) checked.
Iron deficiency anemia is no more common among vegetarians than non-vegetarians. While iron from plant foods is not absorbed as well as the iron from meat, vegetarian diets tend to be higher in iron and far higher in the vitamin C that helps us absorb iron from plant foods. Vegans consume even more iron and tend to replace milk, which contains no iron and also inhibits iron absorption, with iron-rich foods such as soymilk. Oranges or orange juice help us absorb iron from the tofu or soymilk in a smoothie. Sweet red pepper helps us absorb iron from chickpeas, beans, lentils or soy foods in the same meal. Kiwifruit, papaya and salad help us absorb iron from nuts, whole grains or beans when eaten at approximately the same time.
Food preparation techniques can also increase our iron absorption. These include soaking beans prior to cooking; the sprouting of grains, seeds and legumes; the leavening of whole grain breads; and the fermenting of tempeh or miso. Surprisingly, cast-iron or stainless steel cookware can contribute to our iron supply when we cook acidic foods such as spaghetti sauce or sweet and sour sauce. On the other hand, our absorption of iron is reduced when we drink black or green teas or cow’s milk with iron-containing meals. To get more iron, drink water or fruit juices that contain vitamin C with your meals.
Strike it rich with iron from plant foods
Here are some tips to maximize the iron in your diet:
- Eat iron-rich plant foods (especially beans, peas and lentils).
- Use iron-fortified foods (enriched cereals, grain products and meat analogues) and whole grains.
- Help your body absorb iron by eating foods rich in vitamin C at the same time.
- Use foods that are leavened, sprouted, soaked (as with beans) and fermented.
- If your iron status is low, avoid consuming dairy products and black or green teas at the same time as iron sources.
- Use cast-iron or stainless steel cookware.
- If in doubt, have your iron status checked.
Vesanto Melina is a dietitian and author based in Langley, BC. After being in writer’s hibernation for the last six months, she resumes offering consultations in mid-May. 604-882-6782 .