It plays an essential role in providing energy. Without enough iron, energy levels can plummet, often leading to fatigue and decreased immunity.
Most of us know that red meat is a good source of iron. But there is still some confusion about how red meat measures up against other iron sources.
We break down the facts about why red meat is a great source of iron, and how it can be incorporated into a balanced diet.
Red meats are dense in iron
Sara Lake, a registered nutritionist with the Nutrition Society of New Zealand, says the big difference between red meat and other iron sources is the nutrient density in the amount of volume of food and the type of iron.
“The average required intake for a pre-menopausal woman is 18mg of iron per day. So, to get one quarter of your intake requirements in basic iron content you would need just under 100g of cooked liver, 140g of lean, cooked rib eye steak, 3⁄4 of a cup of cooked lentils or five cups of raw spinach,” she says.
Iron in red meat is easily absorbed by the body
When it comes to bioavailability of iron – i.e. the extent and rate at which it enters the blood stream – red meat provides heme iron that is easily absorbed by the body.
“The type of iron in most animal products is ‘heme’ (blood) iron which is highly bioavailable whereas iron from plant products and eggs is known as non-heme and you require more of it to get the same amount into your bloodstream,” explains Lake.
“In a mixed diet, about two-thirds of the iron consumed comes from non-heme sources, but iron derived from heme sources make up two-thirds of the average omnivorous person’s iron stores.”
Animal-free diets put you at higher risk of iron deficiency
The recent popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets have led to a spike in iron-deficiency numbers in the western world.
While the two are not always simpatico, if you do follow an animal-free diet, you are at a higher risk of being deficient in iron, due to the fact that our bodies absorb heme iron (from meat) two to three times better than non-heme irons (the type found in leafy greens and legumes).
Red meat is good for new mothers
According to postpartum doula (one who provides support to new mothers) Amy Jones, founder of Maternal Bloom in Wellington, pregnant women and mothers who have recently given birth can really benefit from consuming red meat.
“For around 40 whole weeks, a mum’s body has been completely nourishing her baby inside of her. Everything that she put into her body went to her baby first, the rest then to her. So this can leave her a little depleted in some nutrients and vitamins,” she says. On top of this, healing from childbirth, producing breast milk and adapting to sleepless nights can all take their toll.
“The nutrients our body takes from things like slow-cooked fatty red meats, bone broths and organ meats can provide the nutrients we may have lost or be low on from pregnancy and breast milk production,” Jones explains.
To maximise the benefits, Jones suggests that new mums go for slow-cooked red meat. “Slow-cooked joints are much easier on a new mum’s slower moving digestive system than a lean type of meat,” she says.
Cooking meat on the bone adds a further source of nourishment – bone marrow, a source of gelatine, which can help the body repair. Jones is also a big fan of bone broth.
“It is often known as ‘liquid gold’ and is packed full of beautiful nutrients and minerals, that are vital to getting mum’s system back on track. I always bring a big jar of bone broth along to a new mum I’m visiting,” she says.
Processed meat should be avoided
Experts agree that too much red meat and eating processed meat is not good for you. The 2018 World Cancer Research Fund Continuous Update Project found that consuming too much red meat and processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
Nutritionist Sara Lake says that in line with the Cancer Council of Australia, red meat should be limited to 455g of cooked meat a week. “You should also avoid processed meats which tend to be especially high in saturated fats, salt and contain nitrates that have been linked with bowel cancer,” she says.
Serving sizes should be kept in check
For the general population, the Ministry of Health recommends New Zealand adults eat at least two servings of legumes, nuts or seeds a day or at least one serving of fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry or red meat a day.
Under the guidelines, a serving of red meat is approximately 100 grams and total weekly consumption should be less than 500 grams.
Eat red meat as part of a balanced diet
How we choose and cook red meat also has a big impact on any potential benefits.
Lake says that the best way to eat meat is part of a balanced nutrition plan: “This should include vegetables, fruits, unsaturated fats, fibre and your favourite treats.”
And while she notes that there is nothing wrong with having an occasional “tasty and convenient” burger, it’s best to stick to homemade.
Looking for other ways to increase your iron intake? Take at look at our list of 13 surprising sources of iron.