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More Iron, Without the Meat

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

One of the best parts of presiding over the Lean Plate Club is being in regular contact with so many of you.

I love chatting live online Tuesdays and communicating with you via e-mail and in the new daily Lean Plate Club Discussion Group. (And yes, I read every e-mail and respond personally to as many as time allows.)

You often raise questions that I like to explore further and share with a wider audience. Here are a couple of recent examples:

· More Iron for Vegetarians

A Lean Plate Club member wrote me about her latest blood tests, which suggest she's running low on iron, a key nutrient for healthy blood and an integral part of many proteins. Red meat is one of the leading dietary sources of iron, but that's not an option for this Lean Plate Club member, who is a vegetarian.

"It's all very confusing," she wrote. "Please help a vegetarian figure out how to add iron to her diet. I got scared and bought some iron pills, but there must be a way to just boost the iron" with food.

Indeed there is. But first a little Nutrition 101. Dietary iron comes in two forms. One is in red meat, poultry, seafood and other animal products. Known as heme iron, it's absorbed more efficiently and more easily than the iron found in plants, from dried beans to spinach.

So what can you do?

Eat cereal fortified with iron. One cup of instant fortified oatmeal has 10 milligrams of iron -- about 60 percent of the daily value. Eat a half-grapefruit or sip a half-cup of orange juice with it, since Vitamin C helps boost absorption of iron.

If you are a pesce vegetarian -- that is, you eat some seafood -- then you've got a lot of options, including oysters and clams. Just six oysters provide more iron than three ounces of chuck steak. And six ounces of clams -- about three-quarters of a cup -- have more iron than three ounces of beef tenderloin.

And if you don't eat seafood, then load up on dried beans and greens. There are delicious ways to do this. One cup of lentils packs 35 percent of the daily value of iron. Kidney beans are also a rich source of iron. Or you can make a Brazilian black bean soup called feijoada, which is often served with mustard greens, orange sections, rice and sausage. (You can skip that last ingredient or substitute a vegetarian sausage.)

Finally, here's the sweetener for boosting iron:

One tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides about 20 percent of the daily value. Find more information on iron at the Office of Dietary Supplements, part of the National Institutes of Health.

By the way, getting enough Vitamin B12, found mostly in animal products, can sometimes be a problem for vegetarians and vegans. Fortified breakfast cereals can be an option for vegans, and yogurt an option for vegetarians who eat dairy products. Three ounces of clams will provide 14 times the daily amount for those who eat seafood.

Or consider a Vitamin B12supplement. Adults 19 and older need 2.4 micrograms per day; pregnant and lactating women need 2.6 and 2.8 micrograms daily, respectively.

· Protein Powder to Build Muscle?

That's the question that a 40-year-old New Englander who has lost 20 pounds since January posed in last week's Web chat. This Lean Plate Club member walks regularly and does three weightlifting sessions a week.

He also has switched to healthier foods and smaller portions. Now he wants to ratchet up his efforts by replacing mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks with a powder that packs 50 grams of protein and has 230 calories per serving. His goal: to build more muscle, which not only helps tone but also can boost metabolism to burn more calories.

The trouble is, he wrote, that "my wife is concerned that this will put too great a strain on my kidneys. I don't have any preexisting problems."

"Save your money," is what I told this Lean Plate Club member. Use food instead to get a protein boost. Not only is it cheaper, but it's a lot tastier than downing protein powder, supplements or bars.

Studies suggest that the body only needs about 12 to 15 grams of protein to replace what's been broken down during exercise. "There's no need for protein powder," notes Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. "It just produces very expensive urine."

Get the extra protein you need from sipping a carton of low-fat chocolate milk, eating two pieces of low-fat string cheese or adding an extra piece of skinless chicken breast, a small piece of lean meat or about three ounces of salmon.

"It's not as sexy as protein powder," Bonci notes, "but it works."

By the way, research shows that it takes a minimum of 12 to 15 weeks to build muscle, provided that you do three to four sessions of weight training per week. Figure that a typical workout is six to 15 sets of eight to 12 different exercises. A lot of people make the mistake of not sticking with the regimen long enough to build significant muscle.

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