You know iron is critical for building red blood cells and many other physiological functions. Here’s the good news: you don’t have to eat liver (or even red meat) to get this important mineral. But if you follow a meat-free diet, there are a few things you should know. First, iron comes in two forms: heme iron, found in meat, is the most readily available to the body. The form found in plants, called non-heme iron, is less efficiently absorbed. To further complicate matters, phytic acid, a compound found in legumes, nuts, and grains—abundant in plant-based diets—inhibits the availability of iron and other minerals.
That doesn’t mean you can’t get enough iron without eating meat. To enhance your absorption of this important mineral, soak beans, grains and legumes before cooking to reduce their phytic acid content (sprouting has a similar effect). And include more foods rich in vitamin C, such as broccoli, red peppers, strawberries, and kiwi fruit, in your diet. Studies show that vitamin C enhances iron absorption and, in some cases, may offset the effects of phytic acid. Here are eight great iron-rich foods to try.
1 Oysters. With 8 mg of iron in a 3-ounce serving, or about 44 percent of the daily value, they’re four times higher in iron than red meat, and have almost twice as much iron as liver. And oysters contain the readily available heme type of iron.
Recipe Tips: Steam oysters and serve with garlic butter; broil oysters and top with shallots and minced tarragon; simmer oysters, celery, and onions in milk or cream and top with parsley for a simple oyster soup.
2 Dark chocolate, happily, is a great source of iron. A 3-ounce serving (45–60 percent cacao) has 7 mg, or about 39 percent of the daily value. Cacao nibs are similar in iron content, plus they’re sugar-free and, like dark chocolate, high in antioxidants.
Recipe Tips: Dip strawberries in melted dark chocolate for an easy, elegant dessert; purée cacao nibs, cherries, and coconut milk for an iron-rich breakfast smoothie; make a mole with unsweetened dark chocolate, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and spices.
3 Spinach is rich in iron, with 6.5 mg (about 35 percent of the daily value) per cup. Swiss chard is another good source. One cup, cooked, has about 4 mg of iron. And both are high in vitamin C, which enhances iron absorption.
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