Iron on a Plant-Based, Vegan, or Vegetarian Diet

One of the most common concerns for anyone interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet is whether or not they will get enough iron from their food, and rightly so. And while low iron levels are not necessarily a concern for everyone who follows plant-based diet, there are definitely those who do find it a challenge to obtain enough dietary iron without eating meat. Iron deficiency is one of the most common in the world, and not just with plant-based diets.

This doesn’t mean it is impossible though, just that it takes a little work and understanding of which foods contain iron, along with an awareness of how to best promote its absorption.

Iron is an extremely important nutrient because it is needed by the body to maintain healthy blood cells, specifically our hemoglobin cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also involved with a number of enzymatic reactions, synthesis of DNA, nerve transmission and protein synthesis. And because our bodies can’t produce iron themselves, 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.

Symptoms of low iron are:

  • Constant fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Poor appetite, poor growth and behavioural problems (in children)
  • Strange food cravings 

Here are some super simple tips to make sure you’re getting enough iron every day:

Eat lots of iron-rich foods

The iron found in plant foods is called non-heme iron (as opposed to animal products, which also contain a different form, called heme iron). In terms of its bioavailability, non-heme iron (plants) is absorbed much less efficiently than heme iron (meat), which is why you need to eat more iron-rich foods on a plant-based diet than you would if you were eating meat on a regular basis.

Iron-rich plant foods include:

Nuts and seeds, beans, tofu and tempeh, darky green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, dried fruits like raisins and apricots, brocolli, lentils, soybeans, sweet potato and pumkin. 

Include Vitamin C 

Vitamin C is the primary iron absorption enhancer in plant-based diets. The good news about vitamin C is that it is quite abundant, particularly in a plant-based diet. Vitamin C is found in a number of fruits and vegetables which generally make up a big part of your diet.

To get the most of those iron-rich foods, make sure that you’re having a source of vitamin C with them. 

Some examples of Vitamin C foods include citrus fruits (oranges, lemons etc), kiwi, mangoes, berries, capsicum and tomatoes.

Be mindful of inhibitors

Iron inhibitors are compounds found in food that block the absorption of iron, basically the opposite of what vitamin C does.

Phytate, or phytic acid, is an example of an iron inhibitor and is found in foods like whole grains, cereals, soy, nuts and legumes. Even a small amount of phytate can significantly decrease iron absorption In one study, as little as 2 mg of phytate in foods inhibited iron absorption by 18% when added to wheat rolls. And when 250 mg of phytate was eaten, up to 82% was not absorbed. 

However, the negative effect of phytate can be counteracted by consuming foods that enhance non-heme iron absorption, such as vitamin C. 

Other example of iron inhibitors include: 

  • Polyphenols: Found in coffee, tea, wine and various fruits and vegetables.
  • Calcium and dairy products: Including calcium supplements and calcium-based antacids. Calcium can inhibit the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron.

I hope you’ve found this helpful! Transitioning to a plant-based diet has been the best decision of my life – especially when knowing how to do it properly!

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