Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide. It is associated with poor diet, blood loss and malabsorptive disorders. Even the U.S. has high rates, though iron deficiency is usually related to conditions that cause iron loss or malabsorption as opposed to frank iron deficiency.
What Dietary Iron Does
Dietary iron is an important mineral that serves many purposes in the body. It’s needed to make hemoglobin, a part of red blood cells that helps transport oxygen and carbon dioxide through the body. Adequate iron intake is essential for growth and development, normal cell function and synthesis of hormones and connective tissue.
Dietary iron recommendations vary depending on age and gender:
- Males aged 14 to 18: 11 milligrams per day
- Males 19 and older: 8 milligrams per day
- Females aged 14 to 18: 15 milligram per day
- Females aged 19 to 50: 18 milligrams
- Pregnant females: 27 milligrams
- Females 51 and older: 8 milligrams
The groups most at risk for iron deficiency are teenage girls and premenopausal women because they lose iron through blood every month during menstruation; pregnant women; infants; and young children.
Certain individuals are actually at risk of excessive iron intake. For example, individuals with hemachromatosis need to be mindful of how much iron they consume, as the condition causes increased iron absorption.
Two Forms of Iron
Iron is found in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is more highly absorbable and comes from animal sources such as beef, chicken, pork and fish. Non-heme iron comes from plant sources and fortified products (and also from animal sources).
Reaching the recommended amount of iron can be difficult, and may be even more so for those who do not consume meat. That said, it’s absolutely doable, it just takes a little extra planning.
Plant-Based Sources of Iron
Cooked white beans provide 4 milligrams of iron of per ½-cup serving; kidney beans provide 1.5 milligrams; and black beans provide 2.2 milligrams of iron. They’re all great options for iron.
Dark Leafy Greens
Enjoyed in a salad, blended into a smoothie or cooked and served, dark leafy greens such as chard, kale and spinach are a convenient way to up iron intake.
Perfect on a salad, in soups, served with cooked veggies or made into burgers, a ½-cup serving of lentils cook quickly and contribute 3 milligrams.
A ½-cup serving of tofu provides 2 milligrams of iron.
Quinoa, brown rice and oats are just a few of the many iron-rich whole grains.
It may feel like “cheating,” but fortified cereals and grain products can make a big difference, especially when it comes to busy days or picky eaters. Many products provide up to 100-percent of daily value for iron.
Don’t Forget Vitamin C
One last note — be sure to accompany plant sources of iron with vitamin C-rich foods to promote iron absorption. For example, a chili made with black beans, peppers and tomato; or lentils and leafy greens served over vitamin C-rich cauliflower rice.
Or, this Eggplant Lentil Soup. It provides a combination of iron-rich lentils and vitamin C-packed tomatoes. Serve over steamed greens to boost your iron intake even more!
Eggplant Lentil Soup
- 1 cup dried lentils
- 2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 1 medium carrot, diced
- 1 medium zucchini, sliced into half-moons
- 1 medium eggplant, cubed
- 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced
- Dried oregano to taste
- Dried basil to taste
- Red pepper flakes to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 28-ounce cans crushed, peeled or diced tomatoes
- Combine lentils and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until lentils are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Heat olive oil in a large stockpot. Add onion, garlic, carrot and celery. Cook until vegetables are soft and onion is translucent.
- Add zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms, pepper eggplant and mushrooms. Add spices: oregano, basil, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cook until mushrooms begin to soften.
- Add tomatoes, bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer for 45 minutes.
- Add cooked lentils and cook on low another 15 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 8.