Where do vegans get their iron? Along with calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids, experts say anyone following a plant-based diet needs to pay attention to their iron intake.
What Does Iron Do for the Body?
It’s a common question; countless medical sources say that iron deficiency is extremely common in humans, regardless of diet.
Iron is essential to some of the most important bodily functions. According to the University of California San Francisco Health, it is essential for blood production. The mineral is a central component of hemoglobin, or the substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen from your lungs throughout your body. About 70 percent of the body’s iron is found in hemoglobin. It is also found in muscle cells called myoglobin, which accepts, stores, transports, and releases oxygen
Iron also plays a role in certain proteins essential for respiration and energy metabolism, enzymes involved in the synthesis of collagen and neurotransmitters, and it is an important part of proper immune function.
How Much Iron Do I Need?
The daily Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron will vary from person to person, according to The National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the world’s foremost medical research centers.
The NIH’s chart accounts for omnivore diets, but notes that vegans and vegetarians require an average of 1.8 times the RDA of iron.
Others who may require higher levels of iron, or be at a greater risk of iron deficiency include pregnant people and infants with a low birth weight and premature babies, or those who have iron deficient birth-givers.
Studies have also shown that 18 percent of pregnant people in the United States had an iron deficiency, which rates increasing in each trimester. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises supplementation during pregnancy only when recommended by an obstetrician, otherwise, iron should come from food sources.
Others susceptible to iron deficiency include people who have heavy menstrual bleeding, cancer patients, frequent blood donors, those who have gastrointestinal disorders or who have had gastrointestinal surgery, people with heart failure, and athletes. Research has shown that those who engage in regular, intense exercise may require 30-70 percent more iron than the average person.
Do Vegans Have a Higher Risk of Anemia?
According to a July 2013 study published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, iron deficiency is the most prevalent cause of anemia.
Multiple expert sources cite meat and seafood, including lean beef, veal, lamb, fish, and shellfish as being important sources of iron, leading to the belief that anyone following a plant-based diet may be more prone to a deficiency.
According to Doctor Michael Greger, author of “How Not to Die” and the founder of NutritionFacts.org, vegans and vegetarians are no more likely than anyone else to suffer from a deficiency. In some cases, the chances of anemia may be less likely.
While studies have shown that vegans tend to have lower stores, it can be accounted for with a carefully planned diet that keeps in mind that a plant-based diet requires 1.8 times the RDA of iron for omnivores.
“This may be because not only do those eating meat-free diets tend to get more fiber, magnesium, and vitamins like A, C, and E, but they also get more iron,” Dr. Greger wrote.
What Are the Signs of Iron Deficiency?
According to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, signs of iron deficiency or anemia include fatigue, dizziness, pale skin and fingernails, weakness, shortness of breath, headache, and glossitis, or an enlarged tongue.
Experts recommend asking your doctor to run a blood test if you suspect that you may be iron deficient. Some physicians may recommend supplements to treat the issue until iron levels stabilize or until the patient’s symptoms clear.
Can You Have Too Much Iron?
According to the NIH, you can get too much iron in your diet. The organization has set an upper limit of 40 grams of iron per day from infancy to age 13 and 45 grams from 14-years-old and beyond.
High doses of iron supplements, it notes, can cause upset stomach, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and fainting. In some cases, it can interfere with the absorption of zinc, which helps the immune system fight bacteria and viruses.
Extremely high doses of iron, which is in the hundreds or thousands range, can cause organ failure, convulsions, coma, or an early death.
Heme vs Non-Heme Iron
The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) notes that iron is found in food in two forms: heme and non-heme.
Heme iron makes up 40 percent of the iron found in meat and fish and is predominantly found in blood and muscle. It is more easily absorbed by the body, but Dr. Greger notes that it may come with a pitfall: “What does meat contain that may raise risk of premature death? One possibility is heme iron, the form of iron found predominantly in blood and muscle. Because iron can generate cancer-causing free radicals by acting as a pro-oxidant, iron is like a double-edged sword—too little of it and you risk anemia, too much and you may increase cancer and heart disease risk.”
In addition to that. Dr. Greger points to other research that indicates the potential health risks connected to heme iron. Research has linked high doses of heme iron to an increased risk of stroke, type-2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and heart disease – all of which are associated with meat consumption.
“The data linking coronary heart disease and the intake of iron, in general, has been mixed,” Dr. Greger wrote. “This inconsistency of evidence may be because of where the iron comes from. The majority of total dietary iron is non-heme iron, coming mostly from plants. So, total iron intake is associated with lower heart disease risk, but iron intake from meat is associated with significantly higher risk for heart disease.”
He continued, “The risk has been quantified as a 27% increase in coronary heart disease risk for every 1 milligram of heme iron consumed daily.”
“There may be a 16% increase in risk for type 2 diabetes for every 1 milligram of heme iron consumed daily,” wrote Dr. Greger. “The same has also been found for cancer, with up to 12% increased risk for every milligram of daily heme iron exposure.”
Non-heme iron, which makes up 60 percent of the iron in animal tissue and all of the iron found in plants, is less well-absorbed, which may contribute to the belief that a plant-based diet may put one at high risk of iron deficiency.
While heme iron is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, The VRG points to a study that uncovered how adding vitamin C to a meal enhances the bioavailability of non-heme iron by six-fold. Vegan sources of vitamin C include citrus fruit, red and green bell peppers, chili peppers, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, strawberry, papaya, pineapple, kiwi, and mango.
What Are the Best Sources of Vegan Iron?
So, where do vegans get their iron from? While many may believe that meat and seafood are the only way to get iron, nutrition experts have shown that that’s not the case. Here are some of the most iron-rich plant-based foods, according to experts
Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes encompass a wide variety of foods. This includes lentils and beans of all kinds, but chickpeas, soybeans, lentils, edamame, kidney beans, and lima beans, in particular, are some of the best sources of plant-based iron.
Because soybeans fall under this category includes traditional soy-based foods like tofu and tempeh and some more obscure things, like natto, a Japanese staple made from fermented soybeans.
Beans and legumes can be purchased in dry, canned, or even frozen form in any well-stocked grocery store. Those with access to Indian or Middle Eastern supermarkets may find unique, regional varieties not found at typical stores. Peanuts, which are a legume, not a nut, are also a source of vegan iron.
Whole grains are another excellent source of iron, so ensure that things like brown rice, quinoa, and oats are in regular rotation in your pantry. Grains also includes grain-based foods that may be fortified with iron such as vegan-friendly cereal, whole grain or enriched pasta, and enriched bread. Add a dose of iron to your dinners with a serving of brown rice or quinoa.
Nuts and Seeds
Cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pistachios, chia, flax, hemp, roasted almonds, are all good sources of iron. This means nut and seed butters (including tahini) and plant-based milk fortified with iron are also a good choice. Try incorporating these ingredients into breakfasts like oats or cereal topped with nut butter and vitamin C-rich fruit or have a handful as a snack with fruit. Smaller seeds like hemp, flax, and chia are all great for adding to smoothies.
Iron-rich dried fruit like apricots, figs, raisins, and dates are all great for topping oats or salads or as a snack. Try a Medjool date stuffed with your favorite almond butter and coated in dark chocolate (another source of iron) as a simple, healthy dessert.
Dr. Greger recommends eating at least two servings of leafy greens a day, with good reason – they’re packed with plenty of vitamins and minerals, including iron. Sneak leafy greens like spinach and kale into your morning smoothie, have a serving with dinner, or take a page out of Dr. Greger’s handbook and have a handful of spinach to help meet your body’s iron needs.
You can also get your iron from green veggies like broccoli and Brussels sprouts or from the leafy top of root vegetables like turnips and beets.
There are a few other ways to add iron to your diet. According to the VRG, two tablespoons of blackstrap (not unsulphured) molasses contains 7.2 grams of iron – if you can handle the flavor. Other sources include tomato juice, watermelon, soy yogurt, and select plant-based meats that have been fortified with iron.
What About Vegan Iron Supplements?
There are a number of iron supplements available on the market for those who can’t meet their needs through food sources. But, not all supplements are vegan. Magnesium stearate, an ingredient used by many brands, can come from pig products, fish, chicken, or beef, or it can be derived from cocoa or grains. Tricalcium phosphate, another common ingredient, comes from bones or oyster shells.
Garden of Life offers vegan multi-vitamins for men and women through its myKind Organics range. The organic, non-GMO multivitamins feature extracts and powders from whole food sources like kale, sea kelp, broccoli, parsley, ginger, amla berry, and Holy Basil. Garden of Life also offers a vegan supplement just for iron with the addition of vitamin C, vitamin B12, and folate to aid in absorption.
As a best practice, always consult your physician before introducing any supplement into your diet.
Image Credit: NIH | VRG
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