Iron rich foods and recipes

Having struggled with anaemia for most of this year, for the first time in my life, I have suddenly become aware of what constitutes a good iron rich meal. You can read about my experiences with the insufficiency in my article “Anaemia, the inside story” on the Live Feisty website. In that article I also interview Georgie Brunivals from Orrecco for some of the medical information. Here, Renee McGregor and I wanted to add to that by making some delicious suggestions for ways to get your iron fix.  The timing of when you eat your iron is important to athletes, as is what you eat it with. So make sure you read thoroughly! No tea with your meal please!

Slow cook Mexican beef chilli.

Red meat often gets a bad press due to its high saturated fat content; however, it is the best source of iron and B12. If you choose lean cuts, it also provides a great source of protein, making it ideal as a recovery meal post training.  Athletes should aim for a minimum of one portion of red meat a week but for those who are persistently low in iron, this can be increased to several times a week.

This recipe makes a tonne of stew – so if you are only cooking for one or two then pack the rest up and eat it through the week – or freeze for those cold winter evenings when you are rushed for time. Add red or green fresh chillis depending on your taste buds! Serve with cauliflower and quinoa for that additional fibre and iron hit.

I do this in the slow cooker, but it can also be made in a normal casserole dish in the oven – cooked on about 180 degs for 60-90 mins depending on your oven. Just make sure the beef has softened before you serve it.

Ingredients:

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 kg stewing beef
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 tbsp chipotle paste
  • 2 garlic cloves crushed and chopped
  • 20g fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp plain flour
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes (400g)
  • 1 can kidney beans
  • 1 tbsp oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Method:

Turn on your slow cooker and let it heat up. Mix the spices and flour, toss the beef in it and set to one side.  In a pan heat half of the oil, add the onions, and cook until soft. Then add garlic, ginger and chipotle paste. Simmer for about 5 mins. Meanwhile make the cup of beef stock and add the oregano. Put the onion mix and beef stock into the slow cooker and heat the remaining oil in the pan (don’t worry about cleaning out the pan). Wait for it to get hot and then seal the beef on all sides in the pan. Put the beef in to the slow cooker and turn the heat down, add the tomatoes and beans to the pan and stir to mix in any remaining juices and spices left in the pan. Heat until the mix is boiling and slightly reduced. Add to the slow cooker and give everything a stir. Cook on high for 3-4 hours, or low for 5-6 hours stirring occasionally. Serve with rice, quinoa, or mash (no milk please!)- and some lime to drizzle on top.

Mussels Italian style.

Surprisingly, mussels are one of the foods richest in iron; 100g provide you with 37% of your RDA of Iron as well as 22% of your RDA for Vitamin C, which aids absorption of iron into the body. Mussels also provide a good source of magnesium, necessary for muscle contraction, regulates blood sugar and can aid sleep which is an essential part of recovery and adaptation for all athletes.  Most people assume that they are expensive, or difficult to cook. But in reality they are neither. You can buy them in most supermarkets – and frozen ones will work if you can’t find fresh. I love this recipe and would eat it every night. With the addition of red peppers and tomatoes, both containing iron and vitamin C to aid absorption, this will keep your levels topped up. If you are having it at lunchtime, it is also great with sour dough to dip instead of the pasta.

Ingredients: (to serve 2 hungry athletes)

  • 1kg fresh mussels, cleaned and prepared for cooking
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 400g chopped tomatoes
  • 3/4 cup white wine
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • chilli flakes, salt and pepper to taste
  • Pasta – linguini or spaghetti – as much as you like!

Method:

  1. Cook the pasta to taste.
  2. Put the olive oil in a pan and add onions and red pepper and cook on a low heat until softened. Add the garlic and cook for a couple more minutes making sure the garlic doesn’t burn. Then add the tomatoes and a couple of table spoons of the white wine. Simmer on a low heat, stirring, until thickened. Add parsley and lemon zest for final 2 mins. Then salt, pepper and chili flakes to taste.
  3. Meanwhile put the mussels and remainder of white wine into a large pot and cook on a high heat with about 2 cups water in the bottom of the pan. Steam until the mussels are all open. Remove from heat and discard any that have not opened.
  4. You can either serve the mussels in their shells on top of the pasta and sauce, or remove from the shells and mix into the tomato based sauce first.

Beef Skewers

This is the simplest recipe, but a firm favourite of mine and a great way to get that hit of red meat without too much hassle cooking it. You can make these skewers in advance and have them in the fridge marinating, then they only take 5 mins to cook which is always a bonus for a hungry athlete. I have metal skewers as I make variations of this recipe so often, but you can buy wooden ones at most supermarkets. In the UK we don’t often have to worry about if our beef is “grass fed” – but if I am buying beef I always make sure it is good quality from British sources. I usually get it from our local Yorkshire butcher so I can name the cut (and he can probably name the cow!).

I serve these with a three “bean” salad – kidney beans, chickpeas and black beans all of which have a decent iron content. I just mix them up with cider vinegar and fresh chopped mint.  For carbs – wraps or boiled new potatoes go brilliantly.

Ingredients: for 2 hungry athletes

  • 400g good quality beef. Cubes.
  • 1/2 red onion
  • Red pepper
  • Courgette
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • Pinch strong cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. Mix the olive oil and spices together. Put into a freezer bag with the cubes of beef. Thoroughly mix so all the beef is coated and leave in the fridge overnight or as long as you have.
  2. Chop the onion, corgette and red pepper into skewer sized chunks.
  3. Make your skewers up by layering beef between the onion and other vegetables. You can use whatever veg you like, but chop the pieces quite thin as you don’t cook these for long.
  4. When you have finished the skewers heat up a griddle to a high temperature and cook the skewers in batches, turning as you go and only doing a few mins on each side to your taste. Beef is best (I think!) still pink in the middle. And let’s face it, for iron content the more blood the better!

Frito Mallorquin

This is a traditional Mallorquin dish which I absolutely love. Living in Mallorca for most of the time now, I have embraced the fresh market foods, huge vegetables, and love of liver. This dish is eaten usually as a tapas style dish, with a cold beer on the side. You can use lamb/lambs liver or beef and calves liver. Both combinations taste fabulous. I usually add a heap of other vegetables too depending on what I have in the fridge.

Ingredients:

  • 200g Lamb or calves liver, roughly chopped
  • 100g lean lamb or beef, cubes
  • Medium onion, roughly chopped
  • Red and green pepper, roughly chopped
  • Fennel bulb, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 medium courgette, cut into cubes
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • Mixed herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme)
  • Potatoes – amount depending on how hungry you are! I usually allow a large potato each. Cut into very small cubes.

Method:

In 2 tbsp of oil fry onion, peppers, corgette, potato, herbs and fennel in a large pan until soft. Add garlic for last couple of minutes. Remove the vegetables into a bowl to one side, and heat remainder of oil in the pan and add liver and meat. Brown on all sides immediately to seal on a high heat, and then turn heat down and cook for a further 10 mins. Add the vegetables back into the pan and simmer the whole lot for another 10 mins. Don’t over stir it or the potatoes will fall apart.

Some other iron rich snacks.

Sources of Iron must be eaten well clear of training sessions. (Photo:James Mitchell)

As I found out when I was struggling to absorb iron, the timing is important. You should be aiming to take in your iron rich food sources at least 2 hours after exercise, and at least 3 hours before the next exercise. For me that pretty much means in the evening. Exercise raises Herceptin levels, which can inhibit iron absorption. Calcium also completes with iron for absorption in the body, while vitamin C aids it. Lastly phytates and oxyates inhibit absorption too. So don’t drink milk with your iron-specific meal, or tea/coffee. Avoid beetroot and certain nuts and legumes as well. But do drink fruit juices high in vitamin C, and green leafy vegetables but be mindful that plant based choices tend to have a low bioavailability.

For those of you who are vegetarian, Eggs are an excellent source of iron and one of the only sources of B12. Whole grains, fortified cereals, dried fruit and beans are good sources. Something as simple as baked beans on wholegrain toast with a glass of orange juice makes an ideal vegetarian pre or post training light meal.

However, if it is all too complicated, here are some quick snacks to get a small iron hit away from the meals above:

Figs with dark chocolate, pistachios and dried apricots.

Boiled eggs with spinach.

Lentil and bean salad (kidney, chickpeas and, white and black beans)

Thanks to Renee McGregor for her help with these recipes.  Renee is not just an awesome person, she is one of the most highly respected sports nutritionists in the world (although she would never tell you that). She has three published books, most recently “Orthorexia, When Healthy Eating Goes Bad”. She has recently started the movement #TrainBrave to raise awareness of Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (REDS), something which is all too common in Ironman athletes. You can find Renee on all the social media channels, and find out all about her workshops or get in touch with her through her website.