Veganism 101: Iron. Are you getting enough?

One of the first questions vegans and vegetarians get asked (after where do you get your protein) is "how do you make sure you get enough iron in your diet?"
At a glance:
Iron is an essential mineral required to maintain good health 
Iron is found in every cell and has the following main functions:
Formation of red blood cells
Cofactor of enzymes and other proteins involved
Transports oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body.
If you don’t get enough iron you may feel tired and not have the energy to do the things you want to do. You may also look pale, be irritable and have trouble concentrating. Since iron is critical for brain development, a lack of iron may lower children’s ability to learn.

How much iron you need depends on your gender, age, and (for women) how heavy your period is.  

Recommended Dietary Allowance Iron intake (in mg per day)

Life Stage

Males

Females

7 to 12 months

11

11

1 to 3 years

7

7

4 to 8 years

10

10

9 to 13 years

8

8

14 to 18 years

11

15

19 to 50 years

8

18

51 years and over

8

8

Pregnancy

 

27

Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme, which makes up about 40% of the iron in animal foods, is easily absorbed by the body. Vegan diets contain only non-heme, which is less readily absorbed. And so the concern: 
Are vegans and vegetarians at risk for iron deficiency?
The Short Answer: NO
In fact, what the research has shown is that there is much more to this picture. Plants have nonheme iron, which is more absorbable when the body is low in iron and less absorbable when the body already has enough iron. This allows the body to regulate its iron balance. On the other hand, meats have heme iron, which barges right into your bloodstream whether you need it or not. The problem is that many people have too much iron stored in their bodies. Excess iron can spark the production of free radicals that accelerate aging, increase the risk of heart disease and cause other problems.  
SO a high absorption rate is not necessarily a good thing as the body has no mechanism for disposing of excess iron. In other words, iron from plant foods is more beneficial to the body because its absorption remains safely regulated. Whereas iron from animal sources can accumulate to levels which could be harmful. As well, there is no research that shows that vegans or vegetarians suffer higher rates of iron deficient conditions than the rest of the population. (See the footnote at the end of this post for the science behind these claims)
Maximizing Absorption:
The absorption of iron is affected by the presence of other foods in the gut. Calcium, tannins, phenols (found in chocolate, tea and coffee), proteins, for example in cow’s milk and egg, all have a tendency to hinder the absorption of iron. Phytates (phytic acid) found in grains, bread and pasta also have a similar effect. 
 
 
Vitamin C - ascorbic acid - helps to increase the absorption of iron and, in particular, the non-heme form of iron prevalent in the vegan and vegetarian diet. To increase your iron absorption substitute your morning cup of tea or coffee with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. If you are concerned about low iron levels, try to combine vitamin C-containing foods with your iron-rich meal.  
As always, it is important to consult your physician and a simple blood test will tell you where your iron stores are at.
But the take – away here is that most people can get their iron needs met by eating a healthy whole food plant based nutrient rich diet.  
 
 #beHappybeHealthy
The footnote:
Although vegetarians have lower iron stores, adverse health effects have not been demonstrated with varied vegetarian diets in developed countries. In fact, moderately lower iron stores reduce the risk of some chronic diseases (Hunt, 2003). It is well known that many meat eaters are oversupplied with iron, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and certain cancers (Leitzmann, 2005).
Hunt, J.R. 2003. Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 78 (3) 633S-639S.
Leitzmann C., 2005. Vegetarian diets: what are the advantages? Forum on Nutrition. (57) 147-156).

    Iron Content of Selected Vegan Foods can be found here: 

     http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php



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