When following a plant-based diet, one of the fears might be that you are not getting enough iron. All too often I hear that someone is pursuing a vegan diet but they feel tired all the time. When they get their iron levels checked, they find that they are low. Automatically they think that they have to go back to eating red meat to get their levels back up. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. A plant-based diet can give you enough iron, as long as you eat the right foods. So let’s delve a little deeper and find out how.
What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that we need for many functions, such as:
It is part of the protein haemoglobin that transports oxygen from our lungs throughout our bodies. According to the World Health Organization, around 2 billion people, over 30% of the world’s population, are anaemic. That’s a lot.
Anaemia is when there are too few red blood cells in the blood, which can result in:
Fatigue and weakness
Dizziness and light-headedness
Shortness of breath
Sore tongue (glossitis)
On the other hand, too much iron is potentially toxic, which is something to remember when supplementing. Iron supplements should only be taken when necessary. It is definitely not a case of ‘more is better’, especially when you consider that iron is the opposite to an anti-oxidant, in the sense that it actually promotes oxidation, activating free radicals and potentially setting us up for a higher risk for aging, heart disease and cancer.
Heme & non-heme
There are two forms of iron, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is made from haemoglobin and is found in animal foods, whilst non-heme iron is found in both animal and plant foods.
Whilst both types of iron work in the same way in the body, they are different in their absorption. Heme iron (animal) is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron.
Dietary factors play an important role in the absorption of non-heme iron and some foods and nutrients actually inhibit its absorption. So it can be useful to keep this in mind.
Some foods and nutrients which can reduce non-heme iron absorption are:
Phytates in seeds, nuts, legumes and whole grains
Tannins in tea
Polyphenols in tea, coffee, red wine
Foods high in calcium
Too much iron
One other consideration to keep in mind when comparing heme iron to non-heme, is that the body only absorbs what it needs of non-heme iron. This is not so with heme iron.
How can I enhance iron absorption?
Luckily there are ways of getting around this inconvenience. Vitamin C is known to boost iron absorption, so make sure you eat iron-rich foods together with vitamin C-rich foods. For example, a bowl of iron-rich oatmeal in the morning together with a cup of vitamin C-rich strawberries, or a glass of orange juice. Lentils at lunch with a side dish of crunchy red bell peppers and broccoli, or Navy beans with Brussels sprouts. You get the picture.
Phytates, or phytic acid as it is also known, are often seen as the baddies in a plant-based diet, even called ‘anti-nutrients’ because they can bind themselves to certain minerals, slowing or reducing their absorption. It must be said though, that phytates are anti-inflammatory and have even been shown to have anti-cancer properties. So we should keep this in mind before we throw out all our beans!
If, however, we choose to reduce the phytates in seeds, beans and grains, soak them prior to cooking (or sprouting), throw away the soaking water and rinse well. Soaking them will also make them more digestible, not to mention quicker to cook.
So to recap:
Eat a source of vitamin C with your non-heme iron food.
Soak seeds, beans and grains before cooking (or soak and sprout them) to reduce the phytates.
Avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals.
Eat a source of vitamin C with iron-rich food.
Mung bean sprouts
How much iron do we need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for iron are:
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