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Investing in Nutrient Dense Foods: Iron

My previous three posts focused on the three vitamins  - AD and K2 - that Dr. Weston A. Price found to be incredibly important to the development of people's bones and teeth. My next few posts will focus on minerals, and this post will explore cost-effective ways to acquire iron.

Iron, unlike vitamins A, D, K2 and others, isn't a complex biomolecule but rather an element, a mineral. Iron is a vital constituent of many proteins and enzymes in the body, most notably hemoglobin, the protein in our blood cells that binds and carries oxygen [1]. Iron deficiency is the most prevalent mineral deficiency in the United States, and lack of adequate iron intake can have a range of impacts, from chronic fatigue to anemia or even organ failure. Iron deficiency is perhaps most debilitating for developing fetuses and young children, as it can increase the risk of preterm delivery and delay the development of an infant's mental function and motor skills. Serious stuff!

The graph below presents cost estimates of meeting a daily allowance of 10 mg of iron from a variety of foods. Prices for all animal foods are reflective of pasture raised pork, poultry and eggs, and grass fed beef. Prices for fruits and vegetables are reflective of certified organic foods seen at my local farmers' market and grocery cooperative. All nutrient data are from the United States Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database [2].

Iron

As in previous posts exploring the cost-effectiveness of different foods at delivering nutrition, animal organs reign supreme. One can meet a daily allowance of 10 mg iron for under $2 per day eating beef liver, heart and kidneys, and likely from other organs too. Eggs and ground beef are also decent sources, but their cost per day is approaching $10, which is a bit on the pricey side. Chicken and pork chops, while decent sources of iron, are also expensive compared to organs so their cost-effectiveness suffers. Organs, organs, organs, does anyone else see a trend here?

A range of vegetables - including spinach, potatoes and sweet potatoes - can deliver 10 mg iron per day for under $10, but there remains a question of how bioavailable this iron is. In animal foods, iron is generally bound up in hemoglobin or other biomolecules. This iron is easily assimilated by most people, making it highly bioavailable. Iron in plant foods isn't carried in hemoglobin because plants don't use iron to move oxygen through their circulatory systems the way we do, so iron is bound up in other biomolecules that aren't as easy to digest and absorb. Iron from animal foods is typically 2-3 times more bioavailable than from plant foods, a fact not accounted for in the USDA's nutrient database or the above graph.

Years ago I tried my hand - for ethical reasons - at vegetarianism and even veganism. I admittedly lasted longer as a vegetarian than as a vegan, but didn't last particularly long at either dietary practice. What forced me to abandon ship for both of these plant-centric eating patterns was anemia, a shortage of iron that makes it challenging for the body to move oxygen to needy muscles and other tissues. Although I haven't suffered from the problem in years, I can still remember how it felt to become winded merely by walking down the street, or attempting to do even gentle manual labor. One useful outcome of this fiasco was that it forced me to study the ethical nuances of animal rearing, and it also prompted me to take up hunting, a skill I'm growing more adept at.

Tune in later this week for my next update, which will look at cost-effective sources of calcium.

Notes

  1. Recommendations to Prevent and Control Iron Deficiency in the United States. (1998) Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Transmission, United States Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.

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