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Myth: to get enough iron, you need to eat red meat

TRUTH: It’s true that some Americans don’t get enough iron (i.e. menstruating women) and some get way too much (creating cancer-causing free radicals).  Though, it’s not because we’re lacking sufficient red meat intake.

First, let’s be clear about red meat consumption in the U.S.  It’s very high; too high in fact.  Most Americans consume about 110 pounds of red meat per year, which is a little over 5 ounces per day.  It’s recommended that we eat lean meats daily which can include certain cuts of red meat, but should focus on fish, beans, nuts, and poultry.  So 5 ounces of red meat per day is much too much.

Ok, back to iron.  Iron is found in 2 different forms: heme and non-heme.  A good way to remember it?  Hemoglobin (which transports oxygen in our blood).  Heme iron comes from animal foods like red meat – from things with blood.  Non-heme iron is the type found in beans, peas, and other vegetables.

We absorb the 2 types differently, and heme iron is clearly the superior source.  It’s a common misconception that heme iron isn’t found in poultry or fish – it is!  So, red meat is not the only source of heme iron just because it’s red.  Heme iron is well absorbed at rates of about 15-25% of the total iron content of the food.

Plant sounds of iron include soybeans (which has more than red meat per serving), lentils, kidney beans, spinach, and raisins.  Beans and legumes actually have more iron per serving than beef (4.5 miligrams per serving vs. 3.1 mg per serving, respectively).  Humans only absorb about 2-20% of the iron from non-heme sources.

One way to improve your non-heme iron absorption is by having some vitamin C with your foods.  So, use lemon juice on your spinach salad, or make this lentil curry with Brussels sprouts instead of spinach!

BOTTOM LINE:  Popeye’s a bit of a drama queen, through no fault of his own.  Though spinach contains a lot of iron, scientists use to believe it had about 10x more iron than it actually does.  His message, however, should not be forgotten as many of us are iron deficient but we can get enough from a variety of foods – not just red meat.



  1. National Institute of Health: Iron Fact Sheet
  2. Web MD: Iron Rich Foods


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