Iron is greatly misunderstood as a nutrient, especially when it comes to plant based diets.This mineral is found all over the earth and is essential to red blood cells transporting oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our body, connecting us directly to the land we live on. Pretty amazing, right?
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in North America, with symptoms including fatigue, pale skin, weakness and inability to maintain body temperature. And as plant-based eater, it is worth paying special attention to make sure we’re getting enough.
Functions of Iron
The major functions of iron are:
• Energy Production
The majority of iron in the body is involved in energy production. The largest fraction is found in the hemoglobin of red blood cells and is necessary for oxygen transport throughout the body. Iron also serves as part of myoglobin for oxygen supply to muscles. Iron is involved in the electron transport system and is part of an important energy-producing enzyme, NADH dehydrogenase.
Iron has pro-oxidation properties used by the immune system to destroy bacteria.
• Required for DNA synthesis
Iron from plant vs animals
Iron is found in food in two forms, heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron, which makes up 40 percent of the iron in meat, poultry, and fish, is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, 60 percent of the iron in animal tissue and all the iron in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts) is less well absorbed. Because plant-based diets only contain non-heme iron, we should be especially aware of foods that are high in iron and techniques that can promote iron absorption. Recommendations for iron for vegetarians (including vegans) may be as much as 1.8 times higher than for non-vegetarians.
However, I would also like to say that even vegetarians and vegans are prone to risk of having low iron because many vegans and vegetarians often eat too much processed foods, for example, fake meats, packaged meals and deserts. Being a vegan does not necessarily mean that your diet is healthy.
My take on it: if you eat a varied, nutrient rich plant-based diet that includes a balance of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables— you can tackle this issue.
How to get enough iron on a plant-based diet
You can start by making sure that you’re eating foods that contain substantial amounts of iron. Some of the best plant sources of iron include:
But here’s the key: It’s not how much iron you consume, but how well you absorb it.
So paying attention to make sure you’re absorbing your iron is just as important as making sure you’re taking in enough. And fortunately there is a lot you can do to increase the absorption of non-heme iron!
5 ways you can absorb more iron whether you are vegan or vegetarian
1. The less you eat, the better it is absorbed.
Seriously! I know people who take one 15 milligram pill a day and think they are covered, but it doesn’t work that way. When consuming higher amounts of iron at one time, the percentage that our bodies absorb is actually lower than when your meal contains only a few milligrams. Plant-based foods may contain less iron than animal foods, but eating smaller amounts throughout the day is a great way to increase absorption.
2. Eat non-heme iron foods with vitamin C foods, and absorption can increase as much as five times.
Five times! Culturally these combinations are already happening: think beans and rice with salsa, falafel with tomatoes and hummus with lemon juice. The iron in beans, grains and seeds is better absorbed when combined with the vitamin-C found in fruits and vegetables. Bonus: some iron sources, like leafy greens, broccoli, and tomato sauce already contain vitamin-C.
3. Avoid coffee and tea when eating high-iron meals.
Coffee (even decaf!) and tea contain tannins that inhibit iron absorption. I recommend avoiding them an hour before or two hours after your meal.
4. Cast-iron skillets increase iron absorption.
The answer to the true or false question is true! Cooking with an old school cast-iron skillet increases the iron in your meal — especially when you cook a vitamin-C containing food in it.
Even better, a cast-iron skillet purchase puts you in the realm of official serious cook. I bought mine almost 10 years ago for $8 and it is one of my most valued possessions. (Yes, I’m that much of a food nerd that a skillet is one of my most valued possessions!)
5. It pains me to say this, but you may want to avoid spinach as an iron source.
Spinach contains oxalate that block absorption. Sucks, right? There is some disagreement in the research about this, but with all of those other iron-containing plant foods, why not try some new ones?
Iron for Pregnant women
During pregnancy, a woman’s iron needs approximately double; adequate iron stores are essential for early infant brain development, are needed to support the large increase in blood volume that occurs during pregnancy, and may also be important for mother-child bonding during infancy. This means that iron deficiency in the mother can lead to iron deficiency in their breast-fed infant and such deficiency can impair health and lower future intelligence. For these reasons, it is important for pregnant women (and those planning on becoming pregnant) to supplement with iron.
Follow these principles, eating good sources of iron throughout the day and keeping up with the absorption principles above, and you’ll find that it’s not hard to get enough iron in your diet, even as a vegetarian or vegan. All of that said, iron is one of the few nutrients where a deficiency both immediately affects your health and is detectable, so if you have any iron-deficiency symptoms I recommend getting blood work with your doctor. It is affordable, reliable and easy to interpret. And iron levels bounce back quickly when using the methods above or supplementation.