Tell someone you’re following a plant-based diet, and they’re bound to ask you if you’re low in iron. The reality is that iron-deficiency anemia (aka low iron in the body that impacts your blood’s ability to carry oxygen) is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, and it definitely doesn’t just happen to vegetarians and vegans who eat plant-based iron. But why is iron important to our health, and how much do we really need? Let’s find out.
What Does Iron Do?
Iron carries oxygen throughout the body and picks up the metabolic waste product, carbon dioxide, along the way. It also plays an important role in delivering oxygen to muscles, producing cellular energy, helping the immune system to work properly, detoxifies of the body (no, I’m not talking about your typical 5-day detox) and with mental processes, like learning and behaviour. So, you could say it’s pretty important.
What’s the Difference Between Heme and Non-Heme Iron?
There are two types of iron that are absorbed by the body; heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is exclusively found in animal-based foods, and non-heme iron is found primarily in plant-based foods.
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It’s absolutely true that heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body. However, this might not always be a good thing. Once our bodies absorb iron, there’s very fews ways to get rid of the excess iron. Too much iron in our bodies can damage DNA and other molecules, and may be associated with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal cancer.
Iron overload can be avoided by consuming iron from mostly plant-based sources. This is because the body is able to regulate the absorption of non-heme iron found in plants by increasing absorption of non-heme iron when the body’s reserves are low, and decreasing the absorption of non-heme iron when the body’s reserves are abundant. Practicing basic food-combining and preparation can also alter the absorption of non-heme iron. In contrast, heme iron found in animal-based sources is more readily absorbed, regardless of whether the body needs it or not.
How Common Is Iron Deficiency?
It’s a common myth that iron-deficiency anemia only occurs in vegans and vegetarians, and that’s simply not the case. In fact, iron-deficiency anemia occurs at a similar rate in those that aren’t vegan or vegetarian as those that are who follow a diet rich in whole, plant-based foods.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. Women of childbearing age, infants and teens are especially at risk.
So How Much Iron Do I Need?
Men and post-menopausal women over 18 need 8 mg of iron per day, whereas women of child-bearing age need 18 mg of iron per day. However, those following a vegetarian or vegan diet may need about 1.8 times the amount of iron as their counterparts, due to the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron in plant foods. This means that women of childbearing age should get 32.4 mg of iron per day, and other adults should aim for 14.4 mg of iron. However, it’s important to note that this recommendation is controversial, as it is based on a single, poorly-designed study that assessed individuals who didn’t follow any of the recommendations to enhance absorption of non-heme iron (outlined below) and instead consumed foods that inhibit non-heme iron absorption. Nonetheless, vegetarians and vegans should likely aim to eat more iron-rich foods than those not following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
What Foods Contain Iron?
How to Improve Iron Absorption
Soaking, fermenting and sprouting plant foods increases our body’s ability to absorb the important vitamins and minerals. Looking for sprouted bread and taking the time to soak beans and grains for a few hours in cold water before cooking them can help with the bioavailability of nutrients.
Oxalates: Oxalates are a compound found in certain food that may decrease the availability of iron from calcium rich foods such as spinach, beet greens, swiss chard. In general, try to consume foods that are low in oxalates and high in iron such as kale, legumes, nuts and needs more often.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C and Beta-carotene can markedly increase non-heme iron absorption. Because of this, try to pair iron-rich foods like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds with foods rich in vitamin C, such as fruit, vegetables and lemon juice.
Studies have shown that eating 50 mg of vitamin C rich-food increases the absorption of iron six-fold. Foods that have about 50 mg of vitamin C are ¾ of a cup of broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bell peppers, snow peas, citrus fruit and their juice, strawberries, papaya, one kiwi, and ¼ cup of red bell pepper.
Tannins & Polyphenols: Tannins and other polyphenols can be found in black tea, coffee, chocolate and red wine and can decrease iron absorption. Try to consume these foods at least an hour before or after iron rich foods to ensure optimal absorption.
Calcium: Calcium or calcium supplements may reduce iron absorption. If you take a calcium supplement, try to take it at least an hour before or after iron-rich foods.
So, there you have it, everything you probably didn’t know about iron on a plant-based diet. Let me know down below how you like to incorporate plant-based iron sources into your diet!
If you are low in iron, please consult a Registered Dietitian. I am pleased to help you with your dietary needs- whether you’re transitioning to a plant-based diet, have been vegetarian or vegan for years, or simply want to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet. Contact me for a FREE 15-minute discovery call here, to see how I can help meet your needs.
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Want to learn more about plant-based diets? Check out these articles here:
*This article was largely informed by Davis & Melina’s book, Becoming Vegan.