#36alive 334: How To Absorb More Iron From Your Diet (especially if you’re going ‘plant based’)

Living ‘plant-based’ is becoming more and more popular as athletes such as Carl Lewis, Scott Jurek, Mike Tyson, Rich Roll, Murray Rose, Mac Danzig and Patrick Neshek have all spoken out about their vegan lifestyle and diet. While more men and women switch to eating less meat, it’s vital that we have the information we need in order to stay healthy, strong and happy. Imitation meats and soy are definitely not the answer, unfortunately Guinness isn’t either (and as you might be able to guess from the title of this article, neither is spinach), so whether you’re considering veganism, want to add more plants to your diet, or are simply interested in knowing how to maintain optimum iron levels for greater health within your own food choices, get the facts and learn how to keep yourself and those around you well.


Fatigue, sluggishness, muscular weakness, mood swings, irregular digestion, more aches and pains than usual and a loss of appetite are all signs of low iron levels. Physical symptoms include pale skin and whiter-than-usual nails too. If you’re suffering from any of these things, it may be worth re-thinking some aspects of your diet, or at least working out a way to get the right balance of what your body needs in order to truly be healthy and vital.

2015-01-26-nutrients-that-improve-oxygen-uptake-2-fb-2Iron is the main component in transporting oxygen throughout the body, especially helpful in recovering from physical exertion or injury, maintaining strength and energy levels, and regulating mood. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the US and UK, and women are about twice as likely to suffer with anemia or iron deficiency than men. [1] (Perhaps Popeye should’ve shared some of his spinach with Olive, she always was looking a little pale….) As with all things in life though, it’s about balance; too much iron can result in harmful free radicals wreaking havoc in the body, interfering with metabolism and damaging the heart and liver primarily. Your body is pretty well equipped to regulate iron though, so overdosing is unlikely.

Why Spinach Isn’t The Answer

If you remember the old Popeye cartoons, you’ll recall scenes of the muscle-clad popeye gulping down cans of spinach like it was a whey protein shake after a gym session…. “I’m strong to the finish, ‘cause I eats ‘me spinach” isn’t just bad grammar, it’s also particularly misleading to anyone who thinks spinach = strength.

popeye1Looking at plant-based sources of iron, it’s fair to say that dark leafy greens do indeed contain a fair amount of iron (with 3.5mg per 100g serving) [2]

, as do grains, legumes, sesame and many other plants…. The thing is though, they also contain phytic acid, which prevents iron from efficiently being absorbed into the body! How very ironic, the plant-sources highest in iron also contain the very thing that stops it from being so beneficial. Research studies into phytic acid are still in the early stages, but scientists do think it is likely to have health benefits. [5] So why then, have we been lead to believe that spinach is going to help us get those huge bulging muscles like Popeye? Well, it all actually comes down to a simple mathematical error, and a misplaced decimal point….

“In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other green vegetables.

When writing up his findings in a new notebook, he misplaced a decimal point, making the iron content in spinach ten times more generous than in reality.

While Mr von Wolf actually found out that there are just 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100g serving of spinach, the accepted number became 35 milligrams thanks to his mistake”. [6]

So, now we know, it’s time to take control of our own health, do the research and actually find out how we can consume and absorb healthy levels of iron.

Positive Points On Spinach

So maybe it wasn’t the iron in spinach that made Popeye strong, but the nitrates…. Nitrate is a salt compound of nitric acids. [7] There are two types of nitrates; one of them is the type that is added to things like salami, sausages, cured sandwich meats and bacon, to prolong their shelf life and enhance their colour to make them look more appetising. [8] The other form of nitrate is one found naturally in many plants like lettuce, carrots, green beans, and many other fruits, vegetables and crops that grow in the ground or close to the ground…. And of course: spinach.

spinach-leaves.jpgResearchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have studied the effects of nitrates on the body, and one of those effects is the fact that these nitrates seem to increase the production of two specific proteins responsible for a growth in muscle strength (and before you look, there are currently no effective nitrate supplements available to buy yet; they just haven’t been invented). [9]

The tests that showed this increase in muscle strength were done on mice, but to obtain the same results and boost your strength levels, you don’t need to consume cans of the stuff like Popeye did – a small bag of spinach or 2-3 beetroots will do the job. Just ensure you aren’t eating a bag of spinach or 2-3 beetroots every day; when it comes to health, (especially the health of the micro flora in your gut) variety really is the ‘spice of life’.

Heme & Non-Heme Iron

Just as ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’; with iron; it’s not what you eat, it’s how well you absorb it. (Although of course, that phrase isn’t as catchy and probably wouldn’t have sold as many records….) Many health issues stem from the fact that whilst we may indeed be eating an abundance of healthy, food, we’re not actually absorbing it at all. When it comes to iron, there are two types, and it’s important to know the difference between the two:


Heme iron is found in animal foods such as red meat, fish (especially shellfish), liver and 200px-Heme_b.svglamb. Black Pudding was actually deemed a superfood in early 2016, due to the high levels of iron, protein, potassium and calcium. [3]


We never really absorb more than 20% of the iron found in plant-based sources, [4] and when it comes to spinach we’re only actually likely to be able to absorb about 2% of that leafy–green goodness (perhaps that’s why Popeye was gulping down a huge amount of cans of the stuff?) not to mention, there’s that pesky phytic acid to contend with. The good thing about plant-based sources of iron though, is that they actually cause far less harm to the body than animal based sources: they’re easier to digest, and are better regulated, so you’re less likely to overload on the stuff.

High sources of plant-based iron include sunflower and pumpkin seeds, molasses, figs, cashew and almond nuts, beetroot, beans and pulses, and of course those dark leafy greens.

So, now we know the foods that contain iron, the ones that prevent us from absorbing it, and the ones that are healthiest for the body, how do we actually go about getting the best from the iron sources we choose to consume?

How To Increase Iron Absorption

  • Eat a variety of foods; this has become ever more important as research into the microbiome progresses too. Basically, ‘variety is the spice of life’ is a phrase to live by; if we can eat many different things and move in as many different ways as possible each day, we’re a very long way towards having an optimally healthy body. Read many different things, do many different things and have many different experiences, and you’ve essentially figured out how to do life….
  • Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C. This is probably the most important point to take away, as vitamin C increases the body’s ability to absorb iron.
  • Avoid combining phytic acid with iron – especially if you feel your iron levels are low. If your meal includes, iron and phytic acid (for example: red meat and spinach – then add something high in vitamin C to counteract this, such as tomato).
  • Cook with an authentic iron skillet pan. I know this sounds crazy, but cooking with iron implements and using an iron skillet to cook with allows the food to absorb iron, and therefore we absorb this iron when we eat it. Simply use the skillet to grill, roast or fry things. I recently griddled some iron and vitamin C-rich figs for breakfast to up my iron levels.

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