PHOTOGRAPH BY SHUTTERSTOCK
Why the big difference? There are actually two kinds of iron—heme and non-heme. “Plants and foods fortified with iron contain non-heme iron only, whereas poultry, meat, and seafood contain both heme and non-heme iron,” says Harris-Pincus. Heme iron is easier for the body to absorb, so if you’re relying primarily on non-heme iron to fulfill your iron quota, you’ll need way more miligrams to make it count.
So how can you jack up your iron intake without relying on red meat? Here are 7 iron-rich foods that provide just as much—or more than—the 2 to 2½ mg of iron in an average serving of red meat.
This article was originally published by our partners atWomensHealthMag.com.
Oysters aren’t just an aphrodisiac. They’re iron superstars, too. Three ounces of these briny morsels contains a whopping 8 mg of heme iron. “That’s more than red meat, and also contains less saturated fat than most red meat sources,” says Isabel Smith, RD, founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. Smith says oysters are also a good source of selenium and zinc, which are key to keeping your digestive and immune systems, as well as your thyroid, healthy.
Eat a ½ cup of canned white beans—with your salad, soup, or as a side—and you’ll net 4 mg of non-heme iron. “Beans are a nutritional powerhouse and also a terrific way to add plant-based protein and fiber to your diet,” says Harris-Pincus. “They can also help lower cholesterol and control blood sugar.” Bonus points if you add some citrus to your white bean salad. You can boost your absorption of non-heme iron by pairing it with vitamin C-rich foods, says Harris-Pincus. (Change the way you eat for good with Women’s Health’s The Body Clock Diet!)
While you may associate molasses with that batch of holiday gingerbread cookies, you’ll get 3½ mg of iron in one tablespoon of the sticky brown sweetener. “Like the other plant-based varieties, this iron is non-heme, so have it with another source of iron or vitamin C,” says Smith. Think oatmeal, plus molasses, plus berries on top—a perfect breakfast! It’s also loaded with other nutrients. “Blackstrap molasses is packed with antioxidants and other nutrients like bone-healthy calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamins B6 and the thyroid-healthy selenium,” says Smith.
A ½ cup of firm tofu packs 3 mg of non-heme iron, slightly more than your average serving of red meat. But that’s not the only reason you should stock up on this meat substitute. “Tofu is a wonderful way to add complete protein to meatless meals,” says Harris-Pincus. Plus, you’ll be swapping the saturated fat from red meat for a heart healthy choice. “According to the FDA, 25 grams of soy protein per day may reduce your risk of heart disease,” she says.
Popeye was definitely onto something. A ½ cup of boiled spinach provides 3 mg of plant-based iron, says Harris-Pincus. And that’s not all. “It’s a good source of close to 20 vitamins and minerals, not to mention a tasty addition to so many dishes,” she says. Swap in spinach for your next salad or side dish, and add in some citrus to help boost your absorption of the mineral.
Chia has long been a hot commodity in the healthy living world, thanks to its high content of omega-3s. Now you can add another reason to love the ancient seed—it’s a good source of iron. “Chia seeds are a plant-based source of non-heme iron,” says Smith, with 1 ounce containing approximately 2 mg of the stuff. “It’s also loaded with other benefits like soluble fiber, which is good for digestion,” she says. Chia pudding, anyone?
Yes, it’s true—get a dose of iron while satisfying your sweet tooth. Just 3 ounces of cacao nibs or cocoa powder serves up roughly 7 mg of iron. “It’s non-heme iron, so not quite as absorbable as animal protein-based iron, but it is rich in heart-healthy flavonoids and brain-healthy magnesium,” says Smith. Not a bad reason to give into your chocolate fix.