Iron on a Plant-based Diet
Iron is one of the most common nutrients people worry about when they become interested in going vegan or vegetarian. And rightly so, because iron is a very important nutrient indeed.
Iron is essential for the transportation of oxygen through the blood, around the body and to your muscles, it's critical for healthy immune function, and it's needed for the production of red blood cells. Our bodies can't produce iron themselves, therefore we need to get it through our diet. The recommended daily intake for women aged 18 to 50 is 18mg, while the RDI for men, and women above 50, is 8mg per day.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common in the world, and not just with plant-based diets. The symptoms of low iron levels include feeling tired and exhausted all of the time, especially during exercise when there is a greater demand for oxygen in the body, as well as being pale, bruising easily, having a poor immune system and cold hands and feet all the time, as well as feeling weak, dizzy and short of breath.
Getting enough iron-rich foods is very important in a plant-based diet, especially for females in their reproductive years. And eating a diet full of iron-rich plant foods, it's almost impossible to get too much of this mineral, as when the body has received enough, it simply reduces the rate at which it absorbs iron to self regulate. If you feel you may have an iron deficiency, and increasing your intake of iron-rich foods doesn't seem to make a difference, it is essential that you see a doctor to get your levels tested and find out whether you are really deficient. Many people think if they feel tired they can simply take an iron supplement as they 'might' be low in iron, but it's important to know that too MUCH iron can be just as harmful, even toxic, as too little.
With that said, let's get into some easy tips to increase your iron levels, or maintain healthy levels of iron, on a plant-based diet:
1. Eat Plenty of Iron-rich Plant Foods
The iron found in plant foods is called non-haeme iron (as opposed to animal products, which also contain a different form, called haeme iron). Studies have shown that non-haeme iron is associated with greater health benefits, and less risks, however the absorption rate is lower, meaning you have to eat more of it to get enough.
Iron-rich plant foods include: Nuts and seeds, lentils, beans, tofu and tempeh, green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and kale), whole grains like oats and quinoa, and whole grain products (many of these, such as breads and cereals, are also fortified with iron), sweet potato, pumpkin, dried fruit, blackstrap molasses, broccoli.
I recommend trying to get at least 4 serves of these foods per day, to ensure you're getting the boost of iron, and so many other nutrients, your body needs! For example, include bean chilli/curry/patties in your lunches and dinners, have a big green salad or steamed greens with dinner, make a green smoothie and snack on nuts and seeds, dried fruit, bliss balls with dates/nuts/seeds/oats, or veggie sticks dipped in hummus. Blackstrap molasses, which is especially rich in iron, is great in smoothies or oats.
2. Include a Vitamin C Food
It's been found that the presence of vitamin C can boost absorption of non-haeme iron by up to 60%! Therefore, to get the most of those iron-rich foods, I always recommend having a source of vitamin C with them, which is actually surprisingly easy. Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables, especially the bright orange and red coloured ones.
This includes citrus fruits (oranges, lemons etc), kiwi, mangoes, berries, capsicum and tomatoes.
Ways you might like to have these with iron-rich foods are: Making a dressing with lemon or orange juice to put on your green salad, or adding in some slices of orange, mango or strawberries for a fruity twist! Dipping capsicum sticks in hummus, adding tomato or capsicum to veggie and tofu stir fries, bean dishes or baked sweet potato, and even drinking a glass of water with some freshly squeezed lemon juice with your meal if you can't think of a way to incorporate a vitamin C food into the meal itself!
3. Watch for Iron Inhibitors
Iron inhibitors are essentially compounds found in food that block the absorption of iron, basically the opposite of what vitamin C does. Therefore, I recommend not having these together with your meals, in order to maximise iron absorption!
Iron inhibitors include: Black tea and coffee, as well as many medications, including zinc and calcium supplements or those containing these nutrients. If you take calcium supplements, for example, space them at least 30 minutes before or after a meal to avoid inhibiting iron absorption.
I hope you've found this post helpful, and feel a little more confident now on how you can ensure you're meeting your iron needs on a plant-based diet! xx