Iron works in the body by helping build red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues of the body using hemoglobin, an essential protein in red blood cells that help transport oxygen. Iron is normally absorbed from the foods we eat each day, but can also be supplemented in liquid or pill forms for individuals requiring much-needed iron. Iron doesn't only come from meats, but also is readily available in a wide variety of vegetables.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health recommends that healthy adult males between 19 and 50 consume 8 mg of iron each day. Women should consume 18 mg of iron each day. These recommended daily allowances differ for infants, young children and people over age 50. Doctors recommend that a well-balanced diet incorporating foods that are high in iron will allow adequate iron intake for most individuals. A mix of meats, fruits, whole grains and vegetables that are high in iron can help individuals meet their recommended daily allowances.
Pick a dark green, leafy vegetable such as spinach or a legume and chances are you're choosing an iron-packed food. No single vegetable contains a total recommended amount of iron. Based on information from the National Institutes of Health, lentils top the list at a whopping 6.6 mg per serving. Kidney, navy and lima beans all contain about 4.5 mg per serving. Spinach weighs in at 3.2 mg per serving. Other great choices for iron include soybeans, black-eyed peas, green beans, peas and broccoli.
Vegetables contain non-heme irons. Non-heme irons are plant-sourced nutrients that aren't as easily absorbed by the body. In contrast, heme irons come from animal based sources including red meats, chicken and fish. Cereals, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and many types of beans are all categorized as foods containing non-heme irons. These foods are great sources of iron and should be eaten every day as part of a well-balanced diet.
Iron is absorbed in the body at different rates, based on the existing levels of iron. If you have less iron, your body will absorb more. If you've got adequate levels of iron, you body tailors absorption to pick up the slack. This built-in mechanism can help individuals retain adequate iron levels by eating properly. Iron absorption occurs differently with certain foods. Consume citrus fruits and juices with vegetables to encourage absorption of vegetable-based irons.
Cooking vegetables actually increases the amount of iron available within vegetables, according to a 2002 study conducted by the American Chemical Society. Methods of cooking can include boiling, steaming and stir-frying for 10 to 20 minutes. According to the study, heating causes the release of the stored iron to allow for absorption by the body. In addition, findings indicate that storing cooked vegetables in the refrigerator overnight reduces the available amount of iron in the vegetables and that vegetables should be blended after cooking, not before, to reap the benefits of increased iron content.