If you’re feeling tired and sluggish and can’t seem to find more energy no matter how much sleep you get, the culprit might be low iron stores. The good news is that you can boost your iron stores by eating the right food, and help enhance absorption so that you get the most out of your diet.
Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, and result in feeling tired, weak, and cold all of the time, having suppressed immune function, and being more susceptible to infection. In its extreme, anemia can also result in decreased cognitive ability.
The tricky thing with low iron and anemia is that the early stages of iron deficiency may occur largely without any symptoms, so it’s important for at-risk groups such as pregnant women, adolescent girls, and vegetarians to be screened regularly. If you suspect that this might be the case, be sure to chat with your health care provider about getting some blood work done.
So, how can you eat to improve your iron stores and boost your energy? By including lots of rich sources of iron in your diet! There are two main sources of dietary iron. The first is called heme iron, and comes from animal products such as red meat, poultry, and fish.
Animal-based sources of iron
The second is called non-heme iron, and is found in plant foods. Note that animal foods contain both heme and non-heme iron, whereas plant foods contain only non-heme iron.
Plant-based sources of iron
- dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and bok choy
- soy products such as tempeh and tofu
- blackstrap molasses
- pumpkin seeds
- wheat germ
Dried fruits such as raisins can also be a good source of iron, as they are often dried in iron pans.
The tricky thing with plant-based sources of iron is that not only is non-heme iron not absorbed as readily by the body as heme iron is, but many plant foods contain compounds, such as phyates, polyphenols, and tannins, that can hinder iron absorption.
Calcium from dairy products, fortified foods, or calcium supplements competes with iron for absorption, so if iron rich foods and calcium-rich foods are eaten at the same time, it can decrease the amount of iron absorbed at a meal. Similarly, tannins in black tea will prevent iron absorption, so if you know you’re low on iron you should avoid drinking tea with your meals.
Ways to promote better iron absorption
1. Soak your grains (and other foods)
Soaking grains and rinsing (such as brown rice, wheat berries, and farro) before you cook them will not only make them easier to digest, but it will also reduce the phytic acid (phytate) content, and therefore enhance the absorption of iron.
But, foods containing vitamin C can enhance absorption of nonheme iron when eaten at the same meal.
2. Steam your greens
When it comes to vegetables, raw isn’t necessarily better! Lightly steaming your greens such as spinach, bok choy, and broccoli will reduce the amount of oxalic acid and make the iron more readily available. Consider that a cup of raw spinach contains 1mg of iron whereas a cup of cooked spinach (which is a lot more spinach) contains up to 6mg of iron!
For this reason I almost always use frozen greens – which have been blanched prior to freezing – in my green smoothies.
3. Pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C
While calcium blocks iron absorption, vitamin C actually enhances it. Cooking your greens or beans together with foods rich in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, citrus, or red peppers, will do wonders for the amount iron you’re body is able to utilize. I also love cooking greens with a squeeze of lemon juice for flavor, and to enhance the iron.
4. Cook with cast iron
If you need another reason to love cast iron, here it is: cooking in cast iron pans actually increases the iron content of your food. In particular if you cook acidic foods such as tomatoes in cast iron, they will help to leach small amounts of iron from the pan.
5. Avoid calcium and iron-rich foods at the same time
Since calcium competes with iron for absorption, it’s a good idea to eat iron rich foods and calcium rich foods such as dairy products at different times.
6. Avoid drinking tea with your meals
I love my morning cup of tea, but I always make sure to drink it at least an hour before I’m planning to eat. Conversely, if you like to enjoy a cup of after dinner tea, either go for a herbal option, or try to wait an hour after eating before you drink a tannin-rich black tea.
The same tips for enhancing iron absorption also apply to iron supplements, so if you are taking an iron supplement you’ll want to avoid taking it with tea or calcium, and can rely on vitamin C for helping with absorption.5