After I had my baby girl a few months ago, I was at risk for anemia, or low iron levels. I had all the classic symptoms of anemia, such as lack of energy, shortness of breath, headache, irritability, and dizziness. Being a new mom, I needed all the energy I could get, so  I quickly had to incorporate some powerful iron sources into my diet. I knew red meat was an excellent source of iron, but I also did not want to eat red meat all the time. I wanted to eat a diverse and healthy diet for my baby and me, rich in whole foods like vegetables, meat, fish and other vegetarian proteins. 

Iron is an important mineral. It is needed to help our red blood cells deliver oxygen to the rest of the body,aid in energy production and cell diffusion, and support the immune and central nervous systems. There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in meat, fish, and poultry, and is absorbed very efficiently by the body. Nonheme iron, found in plants such as lentils, beans, flours, cereals and grains (either naturally occurring or fortified), is not as well absorbed as heme iron, so you to practice food combining to boost iron absorption. In fact, only 1% to 7% of the nonheme iron in vegetable staples such as rice, black beans, soybeans and wheat is absorbed when consumed as a single food. However, combining these foods with meat proteins and Vitamin C will greatly improve the absorption.  Diets that include a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, as recommended by the Food Guide Pyramid, should provide plenty of vitamin C to boost nonheme iron absorption – another great reason to eat your veggies!  You can easily maintain normal iron levels with a diverse diet rich in fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and vegetarian proteins like legumes and beans.

More specifically, some vegetarian powerhouses for iron include dried fruit like peaches or apricots, dried (not canned) beans, egg yolks, dark leafy greens like spinach and bok choy. Adding 2 teaspoons of dried thyme to your soup or salad will provide nearly 20% of your daily iron needs (and give you an anti-bacterial boost).  

Other high iron sources include:

Spirulina (1 tsp): 5 mg
Cooked soybeans (1/2 cup): 4.4 mg
Pumpkin seeds (1 ounce): 4.2 mg
Quinoa (4 ounces): 4 mg
Blackstrap molasses (1 tbsp): 4 mg
Tomato paste (4 ounces): 3.9 mg
White beans (1/2 cup) 3.9 mg
Blackstrap molasses (1 Tbsp): 3.5 mg
Cooked spinach (1/2 cup): 3.2 mg
Dried peaches (6 halves): 3.1 mg
Prune juice (8 ounces): 3 mg
Lentils (4 ounces): 3 mg

TIP: Cooking foods containing other acids, such as vinegar, red wine, lemon or lime juice, in an iron pot can also increase the iron content of the final mixture.

Some foods decrease the absorption of iron and should be limited, especially if you have low iron already. Both calcium and tannins (found in tea and coffee) reduce iron absorption by binding with iron and making it harder for our bodies to absorb it. These foods should only be consumed several hours before an iron-rich meal. Cereals that are very high in fiber may inhibit iron absorption.  

Finally, if you are worried about consuming too much iron, don’t be. Your body decreases the absorption of iron when iron stores are high.  Another remarkable capability of your body.  Of course, you can take too much iron through supplements, so always try to maintain your iron levels through diet first.