Iron is an essential mineral naturally found in a variety of foods, and has many important functions in the body including:
- Building red blood cells
- Carrying oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body
- Helping the brain work at its best
Beef Contains Heme Iron
There are two types of iron in food – heme and non-heme. Our bodies absorb heme iron best. Heme iron is found in animal foods like beef, fish and poultry while plant foods like tofu, dried fruit, legumes, and enriched grain products contain only non-heme iron. Since non-heme iron is not well absorbed, people that avoid meat (e.g. vegetarians) need almost twice as much iron as people who don’t.
Heme iron has another benefit – the Meat Factor: Eating a food containing heme iron, like beef, is not only a good way to ensure your iron will be well absorbed, but the heme iron in the animal-based food will help increase the absorption of non-heme iron in the plant based food when eaten together. In fact, adding some meat to a plant-based meal increases the absorption of non-heme iron by 150% compared to just a vegetarian version of the dish. Try combining foods: add a small amount of beef to a black bean burrito, for example, to get the most iron bang for your buck.
As a heme source of iron, beef is a winner. In fact, beef is more iron-rich than many other animal-based foods. See the table below for how beef compares to other proteins such as chicken and salmon.
Iron Deficiency – A Serious Matter
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. In fact, in Canada, the government considers iron a nutrient of concern, and for this reason iron is one of 3 nutrients that must be listed on every Nutrition Facts table (alongside potassium and calcium).
Without enough iron in your diet you may feel tired, cold and irritable, and you may look pale. You may also be at risk for iron deficiency which causes serious metabolic disturbances and problems with growth and development.
How much iron do we need?
- Iron requirements vary throughout the lifecycle but is essential at all stages of life
- Iron needs are greatest during periods of growth (e.g. infancy and teen years) and for women during childbearing years
- Iron is critical for brain development which is why babies need almost 40% more iron than a full-grown man!