The Importance of Iron
If you are reading this then it means you care about your baby's health. So you probably already know that one of the main reasons we recommend introducing solids at around 6 months of age is because breastmilk/formula no longer satisfies certain nutritional requirements – iron being one of them.
So when preparing food for a brand new eater, iron is a really important nutrient to focus on. Iron is readily available in lots of meat products, but if you don't eat much or any meat, then you'll need to make sure you get it from elsewhere.
We have a few meat-free iron-rich recipes below to help you do just that. But first, why do you need iron at all?
Iron Function In The Body
- Helps transfer oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body
- Supports cognitive performance
- Supports the immune system
- Helps maintain a healthy hormone balance
- Important for physical growth and development
Iron = Meat?
Most people that come to me with questions about iron believe that they can only find it in meat products. And I can't blame them since meat has been idolized in mainstream information as the best and only source of iron. While it is a good source, that doesn't mean it's the only one. Nor does it mean we should rely on meat for all our iron. Eating too much isn't good for us or the planet we live on.
So how do you get that important mineral into your baby's body if not by meat? Are there meat-free iron-rich options instead?
Different Types of Iron
In food, iron can be found in 2 forms: (1) heme iron and (2) non-heme iron. Heme iron has a greater bioavailability than non-heme iron (meaning the body can use it more effectively) but that doesn't mean that non-heme iron should be ignored.
Sources of Heme Iron
Although heme-iron has a really good bioavailability, the one nutrient that can limit it is thought to be calcium. So if worried about iron intake, meat, fish, seafood, and poultry shouldn't be eaten alongside sources of calcium.
Sources of Non-Heme Iron
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods which also have specific compounds that can further limit non-heme iron bioavailability – phytates and oxalates. Phytates are mainly found in grains and beans and oxalates in legumes and certain vegetables like spinach. Calcium found in milk and dairy products can also limit its bioavailability. However, non-heme iron bioavailability can be enhanced by appropriate meal planning.
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is one nutrient that can enhance absorption – so food high in vitamin C should be combined with plant-based sources of iron.
Heme-iron sources can also enhance non-heme iron bioavailability.
3 Meat-Free Iron-Rich Recipes
Salmon Beans Pasta
Beans are a great source of iron and should be included in every diet. You can remove some of the compounds that limit absorption by using dried beans that have been pre-soaked for about 24 hours and cooked afterward.
Serving them alongside salmon (or any other oily fish) will not only enhance iron absorption from the beans but also ensure intake of additional healthy fats and omega-3s.
Red Power Smoothie
Beets are another great plant-based source of iron. When you pair them with blueberries or any other vitamin C rich food it enhances the iron absorption even more.
The Ultimate Homemade Green Juice
Although it contains compounds that can limit bioavailability, spinach is actually a really good iron source. But to fully reach its potential, it should also be combined with vitamin C rich foods. In our Ultimate Homemade Green Juice, we used apples but you can really use any other kind of vitamin C-rich fruit – just make sure it has a sweet taste so that it can perfectly pair with the neutral spinach.
Iron deficiency is called anemia. It manifests itself through body weakness, impaired cognitive function, inability to concentrate, and a weakened immune system.
Babies, infants, and young children are typically slightly higher risk for deficiencies due to their rapid growth and development. That's why a diverse diet, adequately planned to include iron-rich foods is important.