How do you get Iron on a Plant Based Diet?

You’re vegan/vegetarian? You don’t eat meat? So where do you get your iron from? It’s a pretty common question for those people that fall into the above categories. It is worth noting though that there are many studies that show that iron deficiency anaemia is no more common among vegetarians than the general population. A 2002 report in the European Journal of Haematology did however show that vegans do tend to have lower iron stores generally but a 2003 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that lower iron stores do not cause any adverse health problems. It’s even been hypothesised that moderately lower iron stores reduces the risk of chronic disease.

Why do we need iron?

Iron is an essential mineral with a big role to play in the body including:

Formation of healthy red blood cells

Carrying oxygen to our cells which is then utilised for movement, muscle contractions, energy etc

Helps turn the food we eat into energy

Strengthens and supports the immune system

Iron comes in two forms: Haem and Non Haem.

Haem iron is found in meat and is more bio-available for the body to use. It makes up 40% of the iron in meat, poultry and fish.

Non Haem iron is found in all plant sources.

It is worth noting that even in non-vegetarians, most iron from your diet will still come from plant sources.

What are the symptoms of low iron levels?

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, particularly affecting young women and children.

Minor symptoms include tiredness, lethargy, lack of energy and dizziness.

More severe symptoms can include shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat and fainting and can lead to anaemia

How much iron do we need?

Men and post-menopausal women need 8mg per day whereas pre-menopausal women need 18mg/day. Pregnant women can need up to 27mg per day.

Women of child bearing age, pregnant women and athletes need to ensure that they are getting enough iron in their diet. People with coeliac disease, chron’s disease or other digestive disorders also have to be more mindful as they may not be absorbing the iron that they are consuming.

What foods contain iron?

FoodServingAmount (mg)
Pumpkin Seeds100g15
Dark chocolate100g12
Back Strap Molasses2 tablespoons7.2
Swiss Chard (cooked)100g2.3

When you compare the amount of iron (mg) per calories (100), spinach has 15.5 mg whereas a steak has 0.9 mg. Therefore, calorie per calorie plant based foods are higher in iron.

What else can I do to help with my iron levels?

When eating iron rich foods, also consume foods high in vitamin C as this increases iron absorption. For example, add lemon juice dressing to your green salads. Broccoli and Bok Choy contain both iron and vitamin C so will be more easily absorbed. Vegans will generally tend to eat more foods with a high vitamin C content hence increasing their iron absorption.

Avoid dairy and wheat as this can block absorption.

Avoid taking any other supplements, especially calcium and zinc at the same time as taking an iron supplement.

Avoid tea and coffee with your meals as the tannins can affect iron absorption. Consume at least one hour before or after meals.

Soak grains and legumes where you can to reduce the amount of phytic acid present, which can affect and reduce iron absorption.

At the end of the day, some people are not able to get their iron from food and it is ok to supplement. We need to stop the stigma about supplementing because sometimes there is a need for it. Please however ensure that you have a blood test to check your iron levels before you supplement. Recommended supplements include Floradix, Spatone and Ferrograd C.

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