Spinach may not give you superhuman power to fight criminals like Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto, but this leafy green and other iron-containing foods can help you fight another type of enemy – deficiency anemia. iron.
Iron deficiency anemia, the most common form of anemia, is a decrease in the number of red blood cells caused by too little iron. Without enough iron, your body cannot produce enough hemoglobin, a substance in the red blood cells that makes it possible for it to carry oxygen to your body 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 body. 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, iron is absorbed into your body mainly through the upper part of the small intestine.
There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonhem. 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 iron and non-heme iron). Your body absorbs the most iron from heme sources. Most nonhem iron is from plant sources.
Very good sources of heme iron, 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces beef or chicken liver
- 3 ounces of mussels
- 3 ounces of oysters
Good sources of heme iron, 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces of boiled beef
- 3 ounces of canned sardines, preserved in oil
Other sources of heme iron, 0.6 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces chicken
- 3 ounces of boiled turkey
- 3 ounces of ham
- 3 ounces of veal
Other sources of heme iron, 0.3 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces haddock, perch, salmon or tuna
Iron in plant foods such as lentils, beans and spinach is nonhem iron. This is the form of iron added to iron-fortified and iron-enriched foods. Our bodies are less efficient at absorbing nonhem iron, but most of the dietary iron is nonhem iron.
Very good sources of nonhem iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- A cup of boiled beans
- Half a cup of tofu
Good sources of nonhem iron, 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- Half a cup of lima beans, red beans or canned chickpeas
- A cup of dried apricots
- A cup of cooked noodles with enriched egg
- A quarter cup of wheat germ
- 1 ounce of pumpkin, sesame or pumpkin seeds
Other sources of nonhem iron, 0.7 milligrams or more, include:
- Half a cup of cooked peas
- 1 ounce peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, toasted almonds, fried cashews or sunflower seeds
- Half a cup of raisins, peaches or prunes without seeds
- A medium strain of broccoli
- A cup of raw spinach
- A cup of pasta (boiled, becomes 3-4 cups)
- A slice of bread, half a small bagel with nickel or a muffin with bran
- A cup of brown or enriched rice
How to get more iron from food
Some foods can help your body absorb iron from iron-rich foods; others may prevent it. To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat, avoid drinking coffee or tea or eating calcium-rich foods or drinks during meals that contain iron-rich foods. Calcium itself can interfere. To improve your iron absorption, eat it with a good source of vitamin C – such as orange juice, broccoli or strawberries – or eat unhealthy iron foods with a meat, fish and poultry food.
If you have trouble getting enough iron from your diet, you may need an iron supplement. But first, discuss the right dose with your healthcare provider and follow their instructions carefully. Because very little iron is excreted from the body, iron can build up in the tissues and organs of the body when normal storage sites – the liver, spleen and bone marrow – are full. Although food toxicity is low in iron, lethal overdoses are possible with supplements.