Boost up on iron

This article was originally published in October 2014

Iron is one of 15 minerals found in our environment known to be essential for our bodies, assisting with energy metabolism, oxygen transport and more. However, dietary iron is poorly absorbed; as a result, iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world.

Vegans are at highest risk for iron deficiency but not because of the low iron content of plant foods. Rather it’s due to the extremely low bioavailability of plant-sourced iron. Lentils, tempeh, pumpkin seeds, blackstrap molasses and cashews all contain iron — but less than 10 percent of non-heme (plant-sourced) iron is absorbed. Compounds found in tea, coffee, beans, grains and tofu can further decrease iron absorption from any plant-sourced iron.

Animal sources of iron have a much higher rate of absorption — the iron is in a form that can easily cross the lining of our GI tract and this “heme” iron is not impacted by those nutrients found in tea and tofu. Beef, lamb and seafood are excellent sources of highly absorbable iron. Poultry is fairly low in iron, but darker cuts (including liver) have much more iron than light meats.



If you are anemic, your doctor may recommend an iron supplement providing 325 mg of ferrous sulfate. This translates to 60 mg of elemental iron (all of PCC’s iron supplements are labeled with the amount of elemental iron). The “ferrous” forms of iron (ferrous sulfate, etc.) are generally absorbed better than “ferric” forms. “Chelated” iron also is a good choice.

Iron supplements often include vitamin C, which helps you absorb the iron, and some also provide folate, B-6, and B-12: three vitamins that boost production of the iron-based red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout the body.

Avoid iron supplements (including multivitamins with iron) if your iron levels are normal. Iron overload is rare but can lead to health problems. Iron overdose is the single most common cause of child poisoning. Luckily, iron-free multivitamins are easy to find, such as PCC Iron-free Basic Multi.


The meat factor

Foods containing the heme form of iron (meat) enhance your absorption of iron from plant sources — so adding a small amount of beef to a bean, spinach, and rice casserole will significantly increase the absorption of iron from all of the ingredients. Supplements provide non-heme iron — so taking your supplement with a piece of beef jerky will boost the bioavailability of your supplement.


Cast iron

Cooking food in a cast-iron skillet is a reliable source of iron because the iron from the skillet is transferred into your food.

In addition to cooking with a cast-iron skillet, adding acidic foods to your dish such as tomato sauce, lemon juice or vinegar can increase the transfer of the iron from your skillet into your food.

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