To maintain a good level of health iron is a vital part of healthy red blood function. It would therefore be logical to assume that iron only comes from meat. So you may wonder where you can get it from a plant-based diet since it is so important? I will be covering what iron is, why it matters and what are the differences to pay attention to between the different food sources, and how to optimise your iron intake.
What is iron? And Why Does it Matter?
Iron is a mineral that the body needs for growth and development. The body uses iron to make the proteins in your blood that then carry oxygen throughout your body. It is also vital to produce some hormones. There are two types or iron:
Haem iron: found mainly in red meat
Non-haem iron: found in plant foods
An iron deficiency usually results in anaemia which is categorised by weakness, tiredness and lethargy.
Iron deficiency is not significantly more common in plant-based, and vegan diets than the general population as iron deficiency is the most common worldwide.
People eating a WFPB diet generally consume as much iron as, or slightly more than, omnivores. Despite having similar iron intakes, the iron stores are usually lower in those avoiding animal foods.
It’s all about absorption!
This is because its absorption can vary greatly, depending upon the meal composition and the individual’s iron status. The absorption, aka: bioavailability, of non-haem iron, is impacted by the ratio of inhibitors, such as phytates and polyphenols which bind to the iron and protect it, thereby making it harder to access.
This means that due to the lower bioavailability and the lesser total amount of iron in plant foods, per serving, that even if you eat what may seem like a lot of iron-rich plant-based foods it is not a guarantee to be getting all that you need.
Inhibitors: Calcium supplements Tannins found in tea/coffee/red wines
How to get the iron levels I need?
The easiest way to reduce the level of phytates in plant foods and increase the bioavailability is by cooking. As beans and grains are always eaten cooked, this is not an issue, but this is important in the case of leafy greens. For example, if you make a smoothie with raw spinach for breakfast, lightly blanching or microwaving it first before adding it in increases the iron’s bioavailability.
#2 Vitamin C pairing
Pairing a source of iron with a source of vitamin C, citric acid, and other organic acids, also helps improve bioavailability to make the iron more readily absorbed by the body. You could add lemon juice to a dressing or green smoothie, some high vitamin C fruit or vegetables to a meal.
50 mg of vitamin C in the same meal can increase iron absorption 3-4 times.
Vitamin C rich foods:
#3 Avoid tannins around mealtime
As we saw these are inhibitors so avoid drinking tea, coffee or red wine with or an hour or two around to eating an iron-rich meal
#4 Include high iron plant foods
Iron-fortified products: breakfast cereals, rice, bread and pasta
Cooked beans and lentils
Pumpkins, squash, sunflower or sesame seeds
Chickpeas, kidney beans and lima beans
Dark greens such as spinach and kale
blackstrap molasses, prune juice
Baked potato, 180g = 1.2mg
Baked beans, 200g = 2.8mg
Spinach side salad, 40g = 0.8mg
Toasted sunflower + sesame seeds, 30g= 2.5mg Total = 7.3mg
How much iron do I need?
The recommended amount:
Men over 18yr = 8.7mg per day.
Women between 19-50yrs = 18mg per day. Pregnant women = 27 mg
For women over 50 = 8 mg
Furthermore, females during their menstrual cycle have a greater need for re-synthesising
red blood cells and therefore require an elevated iron intake. If you concerned regarding your iron levels, speak to a doctor.
What about supplementation?
As long as you eat an adequate amount of iron-rich foods in your diet, you should not need to supplements. If you are worried about your levels, seek advice with a GP or health practitioner, and have a blood test.
Iron deficiency is one of the most deficiencies, no matter what diet you follow. Even if the iron present in plant-based sources may be a bit harder to absorb than animal-based iron sources of foods, a well-planned whole food plant-based diet can easily help you meet your daily iron requirements. Remember to include iron-rich foods daily, cook them if needed, and pair with other fruit or vegetables high vitamin C.