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Ask Tufts Experts March 2012 Issue

Q: I’m low in iron and, since my cholesterol is also very low, my doctor suggested I eat more meat. Does veal or lamb provide the same amount of iron as beef?

Answer :  It’s true, as a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded, that “meat is apparently the best food in terms of nutritive iron value, not only for its high iron absorbability but also because it promotes the increase of iron absorption from vegetable food and other animal foods.” But meat varies in iron content, ranging from chicken on the low end to older beef with the most. According to Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD, editor of the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, the “redness” of meat is an indicator of its iron content, as the color of meat is related to the amount of myoglobin, a protein that binds iron and oxygen.

So you can probably guess that beef and lamb, both red meats, are similar in iron content. A three-ounce serving of lean top-round beef, for example, contains 2.15 milligrams of iron; the same amount of lamb shoulder has 2.03 milligrams of iron and a three-ounce lamb sirloin chop contains 1.99 milligrams.

Veal, which comes from calves, varies in redness depending on the amount of iron the animal gets in its diet. Producers of “milk-fed veal” may feed calves a milk-replacement formula instead of mother’s milk; the low-iron formula makes the veal as light as possible, which is considered more desirable than pinker meat. As a result, a typical three-ounce veal sirloin contains only 0.78 milligrams of iron and a shoulder blade cut just 1.25 milligrams.

Beef up your diet in moderation, whatever meat you choose. Besides saturated fat that can contribute to unhealthy cholesterol, too much red meat has been linked to increased risk of some cancers and chronic diseases.

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