Spinach may not give you superhuman strength to fight villains like Popeye, Bluto, but this vegetable and other foods containing iron can help you fight another kind of enemy: for example, iron deficiency anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia, the most common form of anemia, is a decrease in the number of red blood cells caused by a lack of iron. Without enough iron, the body cannot make enough hemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that makes it possible for them to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. As a result, you may feel weak, tired and irritable.
About 20% of women, 50% of pregnant women, and 3% of men do not have enough iron in their bodies. The solution, in many cases, is to eat more iron-rich foods.
How your body uses iron in food
When you eat foods with iron, the iron is absorbed by your body mainly through the upper part of the small intestine.
There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin. It is found in foods of animal origin that originally contained hemoglobin, such as red meat, fish, and poultry (meat, poultry, and seafood contain both heme and nonheme iron). The body absorbs the most iron from heme sources. Most non-heme iron comes from vegetable sources.
These are the main foods rich in iron:
Lean red meat: beef, veal.
Liver, viscera and black pudding.
Shellfish: clams, oysters, mussels and cockles.
Dried fruits: nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, toasted almonds, pistachios.
Sesame, pumpkin seeds and quinoa.
Green leaf vegetables: spinach, watercress, chard.
Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, peas, beans, lentil sprouts.
Wholemeal products: rice, oat bread, wheat, bread
Iron in vegetable or legume foods
The iron in vegetable foods such as lentils, beans, and spinach is non-heme iron. This is the form of iron that is added to iron-fortified foods. Our bodies are less efficient at absorbing non-heme iron, but most dietary iron is non-heme iron.
Very good sources of non-heme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- One cup of cooked beans
- Half a cup of tofu
Good sources of non-heme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include
- Half a cup of canned lima beans, red beans, or chickpeas
- One cup of dried apricots
- A medium baked potato
- One cup of cooked enriched egg noodles
- A quarter cup of wheat germ
- 1 ounce of pumpkin, sesame or squash seeds
Other sources of non-heme iron, with 0.7 milligrams or more, include
- Half cup cooked split peas
- 1 ounce of peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, roasted almonds, roasted cashews or sunflower seeds
- Half a cup of raisins, peaches or dried plums without seeds
- One medium sized stem of broccoli
- Cup of raw spinach
- One cup of pasta (cooked, becomes 3-4 cups)
- A slice of bread, half a small rye bread roll, or a bran muffin…
- One cup of brown or enriched rice
How to get more iron from your food
Some foods can help the body absorb the iron from iron-rich foods; others can make it difficult. To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat, avoid drinking coffee or tea or consuming calcium-rich foods or beverages with foods that contain iron-rich foods.
Foods you should not eat while you are eating iron
- Coffee or tea
- Egg yolk.
- Fiber (supplements).
- Soy protein.
- Foods or beverages rich in calcium
To improve iron absorption, eat it along with a good source of vitamin C, such as orange juice, broccoli, or strawberries, or eat iron-free foods along with a food from the meat, fish, and poultry group.
If you are having trouble getting enough iron from food sources, you may need an iron supplement. But first talk to your doctor about the right dose and follow his or her instructions carefully.
Because the body produces very little iron, it can build up in the body’s tissues and organs when the normal storage sites – the liver, spleen and bone marrow – are full. Although the toxicity of iron from food sources is rare, it is possible for supplements to overdose fatally.