About 1 in 2 pregnant women suffer from iron-deficiency anemia. Even if you’re not pregnant, iron-deficiency anemia affects about 1 in 20 women due to heavy blood loss during their monthly periods.
For most women who suffer from iron-deficiency anemia, the words “get more iron” are all too familiar. And while there is a role for iron supplements, there’s also a lot you can do with your diet to boost your absorbable iron intake.
What is absorbable iron?
To start with, there are two types of iron and they are both absorbed very differently by your body. There are also foods to avoid because they block your body’s ability to absorb iron and there are foods to eat more of because they increase your body’s ability to absorb iron.
Heme vs non-heme iron
Heme iron is absorbed more effectively by your body. Heme iron is found only in animal meat and the best sources are grass-fed beef, chicken liver, seafood, turkey and chicken (in that order).
Non-heme is found in plants, eggs and dairy products. Your body has to convert non-heme iron into heme iron before it can use it for the production of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Hemoglobin is what carries oxygen around in your blood and not having enough of it can cause you to feel tired and fatigued.
It’s good to note that gram for gram, vegetables have a higher concentration of iron, even compared to meat. However, vegetables contain non-heme iron so you have to be more intentional about eating more plant sources of iron to get the same amount of absorbable iron as meat. Despite this, it is still possible to get your recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron from plant sources, especially when eaten with the right foods (check out the next section).
10 foods surprisingly high in iron
1. Spirulina – 1 oz contains 8mg iron (44% RDI)
2. Tofu or tempeh – 6 oz contains 3.6mg iron (20% RDI)
3. Oats – 1 cup, cooked oats contain 3.4 mg iron (19% RDI)
4. Lentils – ½ cup contains 3.3mg iron (20% RDI)
5. Dark chocolate – 1 oz contains 3.3 mg iron (19% RDI)
6. Spinach – ½ cup cooked spinach contains 3.2 mg iron (18% RDI)
7. Potatoes – 1 large, unpeeled potato contains 3.2mg iron (18% RDI)
8. Garbanzo beans or hummus – ½ cup contains 3mg iron (17% RDI)
9. Quinoa – 1 cup, cooked contains 2.8mg iron (16% RDI)
10. Mushrooms – 1 cup, cooked white mushrooms contains 2.7mg iron (15% RDI)
How to increase your iron intake
Did you know that your body is better able to absorb iron when you get foods rich in Vitamin C in the same meal? It might sound strange, but during my first pregnancy I craved burgers and I would eat an orange straight afterwards. I guess it was my body’s way of absorbing more iron! Other foods rich in Vitamin C include bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli and kiwi fruit, so try and include more of these foods into your diet if you’re anemic.
Unlike Vitamin C, caffeine has the opposite effect; it hinders your body’s ability to absorb iron. If you have an iron-rich meal, avoid having a coffee or tea for at least 2 hours. The same applies with taking your prenatal supplement. I try and avoid having a tea for at least 2 hours after I’ve taken my prenatal supplement, so my body’s ability to absorb the iron is increased.