In this week’s post, the focus is on finding ways to increase your iron status through diet and supplementation. As discussed in last week’s article, there may be other reasons why your iron status is low, so ensure that digestion and absorption is optimal and that you’ve consulted your healthcare provider before proceeding!
First of all - how much iron do you need? It varies for age, gender, and life stage so click here for the standard guideline. Take note that when looking at iron content listed on food packaging, is assuming 100% absorption.
Meat contains heme-iron which is considered the most absorbable form. Plant sources contain non-heme iron and is considered less absorbable due to its phytic acid, oxalic acid, and polyphenol content - which limits iron absorption. However, vitamin C (found in most plants) reverses these effects by enhancing absorption. Vitamin C content in food gets reduced with processing and cooking - so as you can see...iron absorption is one complicated process with lots of factors.
Meat - especially red meat and dark meat from poultry
1. Liver - If you can stomach this, all the power to you because organ meat has the highest iron content. Be especially cautious of your source - you want liver from grass-fed and hormone/antibiotic-free cattle - which can be difficult to find. The liver is what processes the body’s ‘junk’ or waste: drugs, chemicals, and hormones - so buying your standard factory farm meat is not a healthy choice.
2. Wild Game - Venison and moose have been found to contain higher amounts of iron compared to beef - if you have a hunter in your life, be sure to thank them!
Plant Based Food - Found in most grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables - here are a few honourable mentions:
1. Beans - A staple in most diets all over the world…except North America. Soybeans (buy non-GMO products) and lentils are particularly high in iron.
2. Green Leafies - Spinach, kale, collards, you name it. Cooked spinach increases iron content, so don’t rely on raw spinach as your only source of iron!
3. Blackstrap Molasses - This is different than table molasses and can be purchased from bulk food stores or health food stores. A spoonful a day (warning, it’s an acquired taste) can help boost iron levels, not to mention magnesium and calcium levels. It has a lower glycemic index than sugar, meaning it won't cause such a spike and a crash in blood glucose levels. However, if you have diabetes or you’re trying to improve insulin sensitivity, this may not be the best option for you.
4. Herbs - Who would have thought? One example is thyme - 1 tsp of dried thyme provides you with 7% of your daily iron needs. Sprinkle that on everything! I have a dried herb in my dispensary, Urtica dioica, which is rich in minerals (including iron) and can be added to treatment protocols.
1. Cast iron skillets - These can increase iron content in certain acidic foods (like tomato sauce) but not in others - so it depends on what you’re cooking in it. Newer skillets seem to release more iron compared to older ones, so it’s really hard to know how much you’re getting.
2. Lucky Iron Fish - This is an amazing initiative where with each purchase of a cast iron fish, one is donated to a family in need in developing countries, where iron deficiency is a serious life-threatening problem. You add the fish to water with a few drops of lemon juice and bring to a boil for 10min. You can either let it cool and use it as drinking water, or you can throw it in water when you’re cooking something like pasta. It releases 2-7mg of bioavailable iron. Read more and order here.
Iron supplements have a bad rep because standard ones like ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, and/or ferrous fumarate can cause digestive upset, constipation and black stools. Iron glycinate is what I like to use in practice and find that it’s more tolerable since it's better absorbed, producing fewer side effects.
It’s best to have a healthcare practitioner monitoring your supplementation. After 6 months, I like to re-test levels to ensure the supplement is replenishing iron levels. If not, we need to figure out why you’re not absorbing iron.
This post is to serve as information only. There can be serious reasons for low iron levels so be sure to consult your healthcare practitioner for an indidiviualized evaluation and treatment plan.