If you’ve been considering cutting out or cutting back on red meat, you may be wondering if you’ll wind up depriving your body of iron. Sure, plant-based foods also contain this mineral, but it isn’t as readily absorbed. Only 2% to 20% of the iron in plants (called non-heme) makes its way from your digestive system to your blood, compared to 15% to 35% of the iron in animal foods (called heme). But fortunately, there’s a simple solution: Just add some vitamin C to your meal. It boosts the amount of non-heme iron your body absorbs by as much as six fold. Below are six iron-rich plant foods, each paired with a fruit or veggie loaded with vitamin C. But there’s no need to stick with these specific pairs—feel free to mix and match. You can create tons of combos with these 12 staples, to help your body get all the iron it needs.
1. Spinach (iron) + red bell peppers (C)
There are plenty of ways to pair these two. Raw, minced peppers in a spinach salad works, as does spinach cooked into a stuffed bell pepper. Or try sliced peppers sautéed with spinach. I love this combo with olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper.
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2. Broccoli (iron) + tomatoes (C)
Toss steamed broccoli florets in sundried tomato pesto. Or to put together dinner in minutes, sauté broccoli and tomatoes with onions, mushrooms, olive oil, garlic, and Italian herb seasoning. Complete the meal with a lean protein (like chicken breast, salmon, or white beans) and a small serving of a healthy carb (such as quinoa or brown rice pasta). To get an iron boost at breakfast, add broccoli and tomatoes to an omelet or frittata.
3. Black beans (iron) + cabbage (C)
One of my favorite ways to combine these two is in black bean tacos, each topped with a generous portion of vinegar-based slaw. Black bean-stuffed cabbage rolls are another great option. Or simply add whole, chilled black beans to a slaw.
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4. Kale (iron) + oranges (C)
5. Lentils (iron) with Brussels sprouts (C)
6. Dark chocolate (iron) with strawberries (C)
If you didn’t know that dark chocolate is a good source of iron, I’m thrilled to deliver the good news. Melt and drizzle it over whole strawberries. Or add chopped dark chocolate and sliced strawberries to your morning oatmeal, whip them together in a smoothie, or fold them into protein-packed Greek yogurt. For a fun and healthy dessert, try frozen pops—pour almond milk, chopped dark chocolate, and minced strawberries into molds, along with seasonings like fresh grated ginger, chopped mint, or ground cinnamon.
- Cook with iron: Using iron cookware transfers some of the iron into your food, boosting your intake. This works especially well with acidic foods that have a higher moisture content, like tomato sauce. One classic study found that the iron content in spaghetti sauce increased nine fold after being cooked in a cast iron pot.
- Avoid foods that interfere with iron uptake: Tannins (found in tea and coffee) and calcium both interfere with absorption. So if you’re trying to build your body’s iron stores, try to avoid drinking tea and coffee, and taking calcium supplements before an iron-rich meal.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.