Because you can’t live purely on hamburgers.
Sure, you might pump iron at the gym. But that’s not the only kind of iron your bod needs. Iron helps your red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body, while also supporting immune function and cognitive performance, according to Lauren Harris-Pincus, R.D.N., and Owner of Nutrition Starring You.
But it can be tough to actually hit the 18 miligrams of iron recommended daily for women between the ages of 19 and 50. “Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder,” says Harris-Pincus. And if you’re not a huge fan of red meat, it can be doubly hard to get enough of the nutrient. That’s because, according to the National Institues of Health, vegetarians require about 32 miligrams of iron per day to meet their needs!
Why the big difference? There are actually two kinds of iron—heme and non-heme. “Plants and foods fortified with iron contain non-heme iron only, whereas poultry, meat, and seafood contain both heme and non-heme iron,” says Harris-Pincus. Heme iron is easier for the body to absorb, so if you’re relying primarily on non-heme iron to fulfill your iron quota, you’ll need to chow down on way more miligrams to make it count.
So how can you jack up your iron intake without relying on red meat? Here are seven iron-rich foods that provide just as much—or more than—the two to two-and-a-half miligrams of iron in an average serving of red meat.
Oysters aren’t just an aphrodisiac. They’re iron superstars, too. Three ounces of these briny morsels contains a whooping eight miligrams of heme iron. “That’s more than red meat, and also contains less saturated fat than most red meat sources,” says Isabel Smith, R.D. and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. Smith says oysters are also a good source of selenium and zinc (which are key to keeping your digestive and immune systems, as well as your thyroid, healthy).
2. White Beans
Eat a half cup of canned white beans—with your salad, soup, or as a side—and you’ll net four miligrams of non-heme iron. “Beans are a nutritional powerhouse and also a terrific way to add plant-based protein and fiber to your diet,” says Harris-Pincus. “They can also help lower cholesterol and control blood sugar.” Bonus points if you add some citrus to your white bean salad. You can boost your absorption of non-heme iron by pairing it with vitamin C-rich foods, says Harris-Pincus. (Change the way you eat for good with Women’s Health’s The Body Clock Diet!)
3. Blackstrap Molasses
While you may associate molasses with that batch of holiday gingerbread cookies, you’ll get three-and-a-half miligrams of iron in one tablespoon of the sticky brown sweetener. “Like the other plant-based varieties, this iron is non-heme so have it with another source of iron or vitamin C,” says Smith. Think oatmeal, plus molasses, plus berries on top—a perfect breakfast! It’s also loaded with other nutrients. “Blackstrap molasses is packed with antioxidants and other nutrients like bone-healthy calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamins B6 and the thyroid-healthy selenium,” says Smith.
4. Firm Tofu
A half-cup of firm tofu packs three miligrams of non-heme iron, slightly more than your average serving of red meat. But that’s not the only reason you should stock up on this meat substitute. “Tofu is a wonderful way to add complete protein to meatless meals,” says Harris-Pincus. Plus, you’ll be swapping the saturated fat from red meat for a heart healthy choice. “According to the FDA, 25 grams of soy protein per day may reduce your risk of heart disease,” she says.
Popeye was definitely onto something. A half-cup of boiled spinach provides three miligrams of plant-based iron, says Harris-Pincus. And that’s not all. “It’s a good source of close to 20 vitamins and minerals, not to mention a tasty addition to so many dishes,” she says. Swap in spinach for your next salad or side dish and add in some citrus to help boost your absorption of the mineral.
6. Chia Seeds
Chia has long been a hot commodity in the healthy living world, thanks to its high content of omega-3s. Now you can add another reason to love the ancient seed—it’s a good source of iron. “Chia seeds are a plant-based source of non-heme iron,” says Smith, with one ounce containing approximately two miligrams of the stuff. “It’s also loaded with other benefits like soluble fiber, which is good for digestion,” she says. Chia pudding, anyone?
7. Cacao Nibs and Cocoa Powder
Yes, it’s true—get a dose of iron while satisfying your sweet tooth. Just three ounces of cacao nibs or cocoa powder serves up roughly seven miligrams of iron. “It’s non-heme iron so not quite as absorbable as animal protein-based iron, but it is rich in heart healthy flavonoids and brain healthy magnesium,” says Smith. Not a bad reason to give into your chocolate fix.