Iron is one of the most abundant metals on earth and yet is the most common nutrient deficiency that we have. Recent data from the WHO (world health organisation) has shown that approximately 30% of the world’s population are suffering from iron deficiency anaemia. Iron plays a critical in our bodies, its most important role is transporting oxygen and nutrients to all of the cells in our body.
It is also an essential component of the protein and enzymes that ensure we maintain good health. So how do we make sure that this amazing mineral, found so abundantly in nature, is part of our healthy diet, particularly if we are vegan? Are vegan foods high in iron? Let’s have a look.
Where does our iron come from?
Let’s first take a look at the types of iron available in food. Food sources provide two different forms of iron; heme and non heme. Heme iron is made from haemoglobin and therefore is found in animal foods whereas non heme iron is found in plants. What many vegans don’t like to hear is that heme iron is better absorbed than non heme iron.
However, there is no need to worry because it really isn’t that difficult to get all of the iron that you need from a plant based diet. The fact that heme iron may be better absorbed than non heme doesn’t actually mean that it is better, in fact quite the opposite. Iron derived from animal products typically comes with all of the negatives so saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, steroids, hormones and antibiotics.
And although we have talked about iron deficiency being the most common deficiency worldwide, this doesn’t mean that more is better. Studies have shown that a high levels of blood stored iron are associated with increased insulin resistance and heart disease.
How to get enough iron on a vegan diet
Well of course the first thing we need to do is ensure that as part of our wholefood plant based vegan diet we include foods that are iron rich. Some of the best iron rich vegan sources include.
- Legumes; soybeans, tempeh, tofu, lentils and chickpeas.
- Fruits and vegetables: Prunes, beet greens, raisins, sun dried tomatoes and spinach.
- Nuts and seeds; pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews and sesame.
- Other sources; dark chocolate, blackstrap molasses and kombu.
We have produced an infographic with 25 of the best vegan sources of iron which you can refer to. The key though is not just to how much iron we consume as part of our diet but how well we absorb it. So understanding what you can do to help absorption of non heme iron is just as important as consuming enough. Let’s look at some of the factors that can either help or hinder our iron absorption
Iron Absorption as a vegan
The good news is there are a few things you can do to help optimise you iron absorption and they are all pretty simple, so let’s look at the helpers and hinderers when it comes to iron absorption on a vegan diet. There are a range of dietary “hinderers” that can inhibit iron absorption, some more so than others. That is not to say that this food is unhealthy or should be avoided, just that it should not be eaten with iron rich foods if we wish to maximise absorption.
These foods include phytates in whole grains, tannic acids from tea, phosphates from fizzy drinks and even certain spices such as turmeric and tamarind. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat whole grains or turmeric or enjoy a cup of tea. However, when looking to maximise iron absorption these foods should ideally not be eaten with iron rich foods and should be avoided an hour before and two hours after your meal.
So, what about the “helpers” well there is one main helper when it comes to optimising your non heme iron absorption and that is vitamin C. Studies have shown that including a source of vitamin C with your non heme iron rich meal can increase absorption by up to 5 times. The good news is we often do this without even thinking about it.
For example, when we put salsa with a bean burrito or drizzle some lemon juice over a leafy green salad. There are also certain iron sources like leafy greens, broccoli, and sun dried tomatoes that already contain vitamin-C. Other organic acids, vitamin A and beta carotene have also been shown to help with absorption.
Before we finish with absorption it is worth mentioning Popeye’s beloved spinach. Although we have spinach on our list it does contain oxalates that actually do inhibit absorption of iron. However a study at the ETH university in Zurich conducted a trial on non heme iron absorption in humans and concluded that Oxalic acid in fruit and vegetables is of minor relevance in iron absorption. Either way with all of the iron rich foods available there is no need to relay on spinach like Popeye did.
Iron is not a problem for vegans.
So, by following the simple guidelines of eating a whole food plant based diet rich in iron sources and following the absorption guidance that we gave you should find it easy to ensure that your iron remains at optimum levels. Unlike certain other nutrients iron is one where a deficiency very quickly starts to affect your health but is also detectable.
So at the first sign of any iron-deficiency symptoms I recommend immediately seeing your doctor for a blood test. The good news is that iron levels typically replenish very quickly when eating correctly. If you are very deficient there may be a need for supplements.
Ideally iron supplements should be taken for as short a period as possible as they are pro oxidative with the long-term solution being dietary sources. The most telling statistic though regarding iron deficiency is that there is virtually no difference in incidence of iron deficiency anaemia between plant based eaters and omnivores.
So by understanding which vegan foods are high in iron and how to maximise absorption, iron really isn’t a problem for vegans.
So how much iron do we actually need, lets sum it up?
From aged 19 to 50 the RDA for men is 8 milligrams of iron per day and for women 18 milligrams of iron per day. After 51 the RDA is 8 milligrames for both men and women. This increases to 27 milligrams for pregnant women and reduces to 10 milligrams during lactation.
Inadequate dietary intake and absorption is of course not the only cause of low iron levels. There are a range of health issues that can both directly and indirectly affect iron requirements, levels and absorption. These include things like, crohns disease, coeliac disease, heavy menstruation or blood loss during surgery or childbirth.
As we noted pregnancy itself sees requirement levels increase as do certain sports such as long distance running. However, for a healthy individual on a vegan diet all that is required is a little effort and it is easy to maintain the optimum level. So, to finish I will leave you with 5 simple practical tips to ensuring that you have enough iron on a vegan diet.
- Include at least one high source of iron per day from either legumes or soy. This will include all the bean sources as well as tofu and tempeh. Use our infographic for reference.
- Include sources of vitamin C with your iron-rich meals using dressings, sauces salsas or fruit and veg high in vitamin C.
- Include vegetables rich in beta-carotene with your iron-rich meals such as carrot, pumpkin, sweet potato and kale.
- Avoid drinking tea, coffee, or alcohol at meal times and wait at least 2 hrs before consuming.
- Include a handful of nuts and seeds each day in your diet.
And basically, that’s it. I really hope you have found this useful. I’m off now and am going to treat myself to a bar of dark chocolate, which incidentally is on our list of iron rich foods. If you have had any issues with iron or have any great iron rich dishes we would love to hear from you.