You Don’t Need Meat if You’re Iron Deficient

Don’t Fall Into the Iron Trap!

lynx reaching into iron trap
“DON’T TOUCH IT!” Your 2 year old be like . . .

It is a huge misconception within the health industry to think one needs to eat grass-fed steak or chicken liver in order to maintain optimal levels of iron. In fact, when you take a look at the foods that have the highest level of iron per 100g servings, you’ll find that the highest sources are actually plant-based.

According to Dr. Axe, the best source of iron is an algae called Spirulina, weighing in at a whopping 8mg/oz! This beats the runner-up, liver, by about 800% when compared at the same weight! Although one would probably be eating much more than one ounce of liver (if you can stomach that stuff, YUCK!), it’s still safe to say spirulina wins with flying colors.

The next on his list is grass-fed steak, the one Dr. Mercola touts as being the best source. Now, I love Dr. Mercola, so I won’t bash him—but in looking at the numbers, it just doesn’t seem like it’s the best source.

According to Dr. Axe, a lean, 314 gram grass-fed strip steak chimes in with 4 milligrams of iron. To put this in plant-based perspective, one bunch of spinach (340 g), which would yield a gargantuan salad that most people probably wouldn’t eat, has a whopping 9.2 mg of iron! Yet, Dr. Axe has spinach in 6th place on his top 10 list because he has a serving listed as a half a cup of cooked spinach (3.2 mg of iron). Although I bet most people probably would consider that a serving, if you’re one of those people, I IMPLORE YOU TO RECONSIDER . . . your logic.

Man yelling, "I implore you to reconsider," yet the words don't match at all due to the sarcastic english dubbing.

The Problem with all the “Best Sources of Iron” Food Lists

The main problem with these lists is the journalists are listing these foods based on normal serving sizes, and not a per weight basis. To me, this is wrong and misleading.

Now sure, some arguments exist in contrast to my philosophy. A statement like, “Who’s going to eat that extremely large salad you just referred to earlier, Adam?” would be one I would have to scratch my head and say, “Uhh. Probably like 1 percent of humans?” But this is the point I’m trying to make clear in my writings. We should be eating very large bowls of spinach; we should be dumping spirulina and kale into our smoothies; we should be adopting as many of the trends present in the raw food community as we can stomach (pun intended) to achieve optimal health, but us as humans (and specifically Americans) simply aren’t.

When you look at our closest ancestors, the bonobos (and other primates that are similar), you see them eat massive amounts of fruits and veggies. For this reason, I firmly believe we should be doing the same.

shaved chimpanzee using lettuce as cigar
When you’re eating salad and someone just got a flame cheese pizza.

Side Note: Scientific American has a great article about the chimpanzee diet, and references bonobos several times.

List: Best Food Sources of Iron (per 100g)

Top 10 Foods With the Most Iron (By Weight) (mg/100g)
1. Spirulina 28.5 mg
2. Clams 28 mg
3. Cacao Powder 13.9 mg
4. Chicken Liver (pan-fried) 11.6 mg
5. Black Beans (boiled) 8.7 mg
6. Cooked Oysters 7.8 mg
7. Pistachios 3.9 mg
8. Spinach (boiled) 3.6 mg
9. Lentils, Pumpkin Seeds 3.3 mg
10. Sardines 2.9 mg
11. Coffee Beans (raw) 2.7 mg

As you can see, only three of the top 11 foods (in terms of iron content) are animal-based, two of which coming from the ocean. Unfortunately when you go by weight, grass-fed steak didn’t even make the top 11.

After noticing this by-the-sea trend for iron, I decided to Google “algae iron content” and stumbled upon this article from the Journal of Nutrition, which talks about how 4 different marine algae species had an enormous amount of bioavailable iron, the top two having over 150mg (per 100g)! It also said the algae helped raise the absorption of iron in the test subjects. Though I question the palatability of these algae, I find it interesting that the sea is the biggest producer of iron-containing foods.

One Caveat to Consider

According to WebMD, two different types of iron exist: heme and nonheme. Heme is supposedly easier to absorb than nonheme. The article also states that all plant-based products contain nonheme iron, and thus, the justification for the promotion of animal-based sources of iron ensues.

VWR Questions

I’d like to see the literature suggesting our bodies digest nonheme iron better than heme iron. The article I pointed you to earlier showed an extremely large amount of (what the researchers called) bioavailable iron in algae. Because of this, I question whether this heme/nonheme is a legitimate argument to eat some animal-based products over their plant counterparts, or just more meat-eating propaganda. This opens up the possibility for a future follow-up article, but for now, I’m signing off.

As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and concerns. If you find any discrepancies in the information I’m providing or simply have something insightful to add, you’re welcome to do so below.

Thank you for reading and stay well.