Lean Plate Club: Readers have questions on iron, protein

  • Article by: SALLY SQUIRES , Washington Post
  • Updated: April 8, 2008 - 5:12 PM

Vegetarians can find iron in beans and greens. As for protein, skip the powders and try milk, cheese, chicken.

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 in the body. Red meat is one of the leading dietary sources of iron, but that's not an option for this person, 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 -- you have a lot of options, including oysters and clams. Just six oysters provide more iron than 3 ounces of beef chuck steak. And 6 ounces of clams -- about three-quarters of a cup -- have more iron than 3 ounces of beef tenderloin.

If you don't eat seafood, 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 also are a rich source of iron. And a Brazilian black-bean soup called feijoada 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 -- making it a good source of this key nutrient. Find more information on iron at the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health.

By the way, getting enough vitamin B12 -- also found mostly in animal products -- can sometimes be a problem for vegetarians and vegans. Fortified breakfast cereals can be an option for vegans; yogurt 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 B12 supplement. Adults 19 and older need 2.4 micrograms per day; pregnant and lactating women need up to 2.8 micrograms daily.

Protein powder to build muscle?

That's the question posed by a 40-year-old New Englander, who has lost 20 pounds since January and now walks regularly and lifts weights three times weekly.

He wants to ratchet up his efforts by replacing midmorning and midafternoon 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.

"Save your money" is my advice, which is echoed by Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh, who says "there's no need for protein powder."

Studies suggest that the body needs only about 12 to 15 grams of protein to replace what's been broken down during exercise. Get that from sipping a carton of skim or low-fat milk, eating two pieces of low-fat string cheese or an extra piece of skinless chicken breast. Not only is it cheaper than protein powder, supplements or bars, but it's a lot tastier too.

By the way, research shows that it takes 12 to 15 weeks to build muscle, provided that you do three to four weightlifting sessions per week. Figure that a typical workout is six to 15 repetitions 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.

You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at www.leanplateclub.com. Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.

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