17 December 2010

Is red meat the best source of iron?

Red meat is only one of the many and varied foods which provide iron to our body, and it’s definitively not the best one. 
There are two different types of iron available in foods: ‘hem-iron’ and ‘non hem-iron’ and the difference between the two is quite important for our iron absorption and our health. 

Iron, like any other metal, although it is very important for the healthy function of the body, tends to accumulate in our cells and organs making it difficult for the body to get rid of the excess. An excessive amount of iron has been linked to heart disease, arthritis as well as liver and pancreas degeneration.

Hem-iron, which is the type present in red meat and all animal products, is actually “second hand” iron: the animal has already absorbed and processed the iron which we then eat in the form of a beef steak, hamburger, ham and so on. Absorption of hem-iron is very fast in our body because it has already been processed.

Non hem-iron, on the other hand, is present in all green leafy vegetables, some nuts, seeds and beans (kidney beans are particularly rich). When we eat those foods our body has to extract the iron, process it and make it available for our cells and organs, so the absorption is less immediate compared to hem-iron.

So, you are probably thinking now “Well, it is obvious then that eating a beef steak is better than a salad in order to get an adequate iron intake”… But nothing could be further from the truth! Because hem-iron has already been processed by the animal whose meat we are eating, our body does not have a trigger to stop its intake when our body has as much as it needs, and this in turn leads to an excessive amount of iron that stays in our body.
With non-hem iron the body needs to extract it from the plants we are eating, process it and finally absorb it. During this process the body records the amount of iron that we are taking in and stops when it has enough for the healthy function of cells and organs. By doing this the body is able to prevent an excessive intake of iron and the health problems associated with it.

Therefore, when we eat red meat we actually tamper with the body’s ability to regulate the amount of iron we take in and making it therefore more difficult for the body to ensure the correct function of all organs and cells.

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