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How to Get More Iron on a Plant-Based Diet

How to Get More Iron on a Plant-Based Diet

True or False: You will become iron deficient on a plant-based diet.

Signs and Symptoms of Low Iron

We have all heard that iron is important to our health.  Your doctor might have also told you that are “low on iron”.  Iron deficiency remains one of the world’s most common deficiencies.
Not getting enough iron may leave you:

  • Feeling tired
  • Pale
  • Have difficulty thinking and concentrating
  • Irritable
  • Have heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Low stomach acidity
  • Get sick often

How Much Iron do I Need?

If you are a woman in your reproductive years, this story might sound too familiar.  Menstruating women require 18 mg of iron and pregnant ladies need up to 27 mg of iron a day.  Five percent of women between ages of 20 and 49 suffer from iron deficiency anemia (1).  Men on the other hand need less iron (8 mg daily) and deficiencies generally arise from bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract.  If you are also a vegan or vegetarian, listen up!  Vegetarians need as much as 80% more iron to make up for poorer absorption of iron from non-animal sources (2).

Here is a handy chart to keep you on track of how much daily iron you should be getting (3):

Women
(19-50)
Women
(50+)
Pregnant Women
(19-50)
Breast
feeding Women
(19-50)
Men
(19+)
18 mg 8 mg 27 mg 9 mg 8 mg

Animal vs Plant Iron: What’s the Difference?

In a nut shell, there are two forms of dietary iron, heme and non-heme iron.  The heme form is found in animal products such as meat, fish, poultry, oysters, and clams.  If you are consuming a plant diet, you are getting the non-heme form of iron.  Examples of foods with high content of non-heme iron include cacao, dark chocolate, peanut butter, coriander, fresh dill, dry thyme, sesame seeds, spearmint and navy beans (4).  We need iron in our diet to form oxygen-carrying units called hemoglobin to keep organs well oxygenated.

Did you know? The red color of blood comes from oxygen binding to iron containing hemoglobin units in red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body.

So, Will I Become An Iron Deficient Plant-Eater?

To answer the true or false question at the beginning of the article let’s look at current research.  For the most part, vegan women are getting more iron in their diet compared to meat eaters (5), but are not absorbing iron as well.  Only about 1-10% of plant non-heme iron is absorbed compared to animal sourced heme iron (20-30%) (7).  When compared to vegan men, women are not eating enough iron-rich foods (6), which puts them at a greater risk of iron deficiency.  The moral of the story is that animal-sourced iron is positively associated with iron status, while vegan ladies need to get smart about optimizing their iron intake.

Getting Smart About Your Iron

Here are 5 top strategies to maximize your body’s absorption of iron from plant (and animal-based) diet.

  1. Vitamin C is the most effective enhancer of non-heme iron absorption.  Try adding lemon or lime juice to your salad or having a glass of orange juice with your iron-rich meal. (7)
  2. Cooking in iron frying pans or try Lucky Iron Fish (www.luckyironfish.com)
  3. Some iron rich foods such as beans, sesame seeds and peanuts contain a natural substance called phytic acid, which inhibits iron absorption during the meal. Soaking your beans prior to cooking can help remove this substance (8).  Click HERE to read more about phytic acid.
  4. There is some evidence that polyphenols found in coffee and black tea may affect non-heme iron absorption (7,8) and it’s best to avoid with your iron-rich meal.
  5. Add carrots to your meal to boost Vitamin A and C that helps with iron absorption.  Try this cast iron recipe to maximize the iron absorption effect!

In Summary

Iron is an essential nutrient, especially for women on a plant-based diet.  Iron status may be altered by the foods we eat and affected by our body’s ability to absorb it.  Sometimes even diet might not be enough to get your daily dose of iron.  It is best to talk to you health care professional about physical and laboratory assessment to check how you are doing.  They will help you find the right form and dose of iron supplement to address your needs!

In Health,
Dr. Anna ND

Reference:

  1. Elizabeth M. Ross, M.D., L.D.N. Iron Deficiency Anemia: Risk, Symptoms and Treatment. http://www.thedoctorwillseeyounow.com/content/nutrition/art2046.html.
  2. Hunt JR. Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets.  Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;78, 3 Suppl.
  3. Food Sources of Iron. Dieticians of Canada. http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Minerals/Food-Sources-of-Iron.aspx.
  4. USDA https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/nutrients/index.
  5. Clarys P, Deliens T, Huybrechts I, Deriemaeker P, Vanaelst B, De Keyzer W, Hebbelinck M, Mullie P. Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet. Nutrients. 2014 Mar; 6(3): 1318–1332.
  6. Kristensen NB, Madsen ML, Hansen TH, Allin KH, Hoppe C, Fagt S,Lausten MS, Gøbel RJ, Vestergaard H, Hansen T, Pedersen O. Intake of macro- and micronutrients in Danish vegans.  Nutrition Journal (2015) 14:115.
  7. Beck KL, Conlon CA, Kruger R, Coad J. Dietary Determinants of and Possible Solutions to Iron Deficiency for Young Women Living in Industrialized Countries: A Review. Nutrients. 2014 Sep; 6(9): 3747–3776.
  8. Hurrell R, Egli I. Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr May 2010 vol. 91 no. 5.