Has your doctor diagnosed you as anaemic then told you to eat more red meat and take an iron tablet? What if I told you that this is the way to making your tummy troubles worse, not better? Here’s how to raise your iron levels without supplements and red meat.
How Iron Deficiency Happens
Before we cover the plan for raising your iron levels, it’s important to understand why you’re anaemic in the first place.
Main Causes of Iron Deficiency
These are the three most common causes of iron deficiency, though there are many more.
One of the common ways in which you can become iron deficient is through not eating enough iron-rich food, and not optimising the absorption of the plant-based non-haem iron (more on this later). Vegans and vegetarians are at the highest risk of having a deficient intake of iron in their diet, but it’s possible to increase your levels with the right dietary approach.
Being Female (Increased Iron Demand)
Women of reproductive age need more than double the daily iron intake of a male the same age. This is because of the extra iron lost every month due to menstruation. Because of this increased demand, anaemia tends to be more common in females. If you’re a woman who has a heavy period (more than 80ml per menstrual bleed), this will further increase demands – you’re going to need even more than the recommended daily intake to raise your levels.
Poor Digestive Function
If you have impaired digestive function because of a diagnosis such as IBS, IBD, diverticular disease, etc, this can prevent you from absorbing iron from your food. It won’t matter how much red meat you eat or how many supplements you take – you’re not going to absorb much of it if your gut isn’t in good form.
It’s important to consider that you might be at risk because of a combination of factors in your lifestyle, diet and your sex. For example, if you’re a female vegan with heavy periods and IBS, you’re a triple-whammy candidate for anaemia.
Haem Iron vs Non-Haem Iron
It’s also important to understand the differences between dietary iron types.
This kind of iron refers to iron that is already formed in blood. This kind of iron can only come from animal sources such as meat, poultry and fish. It is not possible to get haem iron in a vegan diet. As for lacto-ovo vegetarians, the content is negligible. This is the best-absorbed form of iron that exists, with an absorption rate of up to 30%.
Non-Haem iron is the form of iron present in plant foods. This kind of iron is not as well-absorbed by the body and is processed less efficiently by the body once it’s absorbed. This inefficient processing of non-haem iron is why vegans and vegetarians can be more commonly diagnosed with deficiency and why doctors and dietitians recommend red meat over plant-based sources. There is one nifty trick to increase absorption, though…
Making the Best of Non-Haem Iron
The best thing you can do to absorb more iron from your plant-based sources is to add something Vitamin C-rich to your meal. Squeeze lemon over your green leafy salad, for example. This will increase your iron absorption from the leafy greens!
The Problem With Red Meat and Iron Tablets
Iron Supplements and Inflammation
When we take iron supplements such as ferrous sulfate (Ferrograd-C is a common brand), 10-15% of this will be all that’s absorbed in people with healthy digestive systems. This leaves 80-90% of the rest of that iron floating around in the digestive system instead of in your bloodstream. This can result in some nasty side effects, even in those with healthy digestive function. It can be even more problematic for those with existing digestive diseases! Increased iron in the gut will always lead to increased inflammation. If you haven’t already, go here to read about how inflammation is a major driver of digestive problems. If you have a digestive condition like IBS or IBD, using iron tablets to correct anaemia is going to be next to impossible and here’s why: it takes 3 months of supplementation to raise haemoglobin levels to baseline (on average). 3 months of dealing with increased digestive pain, diarrhoea, constipation, heartburn and nausea. There are definitely better ways to get both iron levels up and your gut feeling better, without the pain!
Red Meat and Inflammation
Red meat is a high-level source of the right kind of efficient and absorbable iron; haem iron. So why am I against its use for people who have digestive issues? Because increased red meat consumption is directly linked to the development of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. It’s not established exactly why red meat is such a problem in the development of digestive diseases. My thought is that we’re not evolved to consume industrially farmed beef. Often, cattle are fed grain (something they are not evolved to consume), which would increase the inflammation in their bodies. We then eat the meat full of their inflammatory mediators and increase our own inflammation as a result. I’m never surprised when my patients tell me they avoid red meat because it gives them digestive pain. So they should! It’s not doing them any favours.
How To Get Your Iron In
Here’s my secret weapon for maxing our your iron intake: SEAFOOD!
Fish and Inflammation
Unlike red meat, fish has anti-inflammatory action in the digestive system because of their omega-3 fatty acids! If you haven’t already, go here for more on anti-inflammatory omega-3’s…
The Fish Highest In Iron
Before I list my top picks, I want you to understand that a 100g leg of lamb contains 2.5mg iron. When you see the numbers listed in the foods below, you’ll wonder why anyone ever bothers with red meat as their first choice for iron content! Here are my top 3 seafood picks for raising iron levels (they’re all haem iron sources) and healing your gut at the same time:
A serving of 100g mussels (after you remove the shells) contains 6.7mg iron, which is nearly half the daily RDI for a woman of reproductive age. If you’re a man of the same age, this one meal would almost completely cover your iron needs for the entire day! This recipe from FODMAP Everyday is a winner if you want to raise your iron and on a low FODMAP diet for IBS.
A serving of 100g octopus would set you up even better than mussels; it contains a whopping 9.7mg of iron! This is more than 60% of your daily needs if you’re a woman of reproductive age and more than covers you completely for the day if you’re a man! BBQ Octopus is my all-time favourite way to prepare this delicious seafood. This low FODMAP recipe from Me Vs IBS is perfect with a summer salad!
6 oysters will set you up with an astonishing 6.1mg of iron in one entree! That’s close to meeting your entire daily needs if you’re a man and more than 30% of the way if you’re a woman of reproductive age! I’m a purist – I love my oysters fresh and natural with a squeeze of lemon juice. Delicious!
Other Ways To Optimise Your Meal
If you have your seafood with a green leafy salad that’s squeezed with lemon and olive oil, you’ll be kicking iron goals quickly! Don’t forget that you can get haem iron from poultry, too, so if you’re adding chicken to your salad instead, feel confident you’re covered for iron needs.
What To Do If You’re Really, Really Deficient
If you have a combination of factors affecting your iron deficiency, increasing your iron-rich seafood is not gonna hit the spot on its own. You need extra help that addresses the root cause for your iron deficiency. Book your 15-minute Gut Health Assessment today so you can start getting your iron up and your energy back!
Naturopath and Nutritionist