Myth: Spinach and Other Vegetables are Equally Good Sources of Iron as Meat


Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutrition deficiency in the U.S., Canada and many countries around the world. The amount of total iron in meat versus vegetable sources often appears be similar, but an important aspect to consider is how much of that iron is actually absorbed by the body. Research has shown that iron and zinc in meat and poultry are more “bioavailable,” meaning they are more easily absorbed and utilized by the body, than the same minerals found in grains or vegetables.1 As a result, overall recommended iron intake for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than meat eaters.2

Absorption of iron in the intestines differs among food sources because there are two types of iron: heme iron which is found in meat products and non-heme iron which is found in plant based foods. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body. Emerging research suggests that consuming at least 50 grams, or about two ounces of meat, poultry, or fish, can improve iron absorption of a meal by about 45 percent. To further complicate the absorption phenomenon there are certain compounds in plants that inhibit absorption of non-heme iron. However,heme iron improves the absorption of non-heme iron; meaning if you eat meat in combination with vegetables, it increases the absorption of iron from both sources…one of many reasons for balanced diet with all foods.3 Vegetarians and vegans can also increase iron absorption by pairing iron rich foods with foods high in Vitamin C.

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Iron plays an important role in the body, most commonly as hemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen in red blood cells. Iron intake can be particularly important for certain populations such as young children, teen girls, pregnant and pre-menopausal women.4

Iron deficiency anemia can zap energy, mood, and ability to concentrate, as well as cause headaches. If not corrected, the effects include shortness of breath and dizziness and can be severe.5

  1. Lim KH, et al (2013). Iron and zinc nutrition in the economically-developed world: a review.
  3. Foster, M, et al. Effect of vegetarian diets on zinc status: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies in humans. J. Sci. Food Agric. 2013;93:2362–71.
  4. Iron and Iron Deficiency.