Can You Get Enough Iron on a Plant-Based Diet?
Plant-based iron is harder to absorb than animal-based iron. However, there are great ways to get around this problem, and iron absorption can be just as effective as animal-based sources.
It is possible to get enough iron from plant-based sources. People who changed over to a plant-based diet increased their iron levels within the first few months.
Why is iron important to us?
Iron is an essential mineral in the body. It is what makes red blood cells appear red and maintains the healthy flow of oxygen to the organs and muscles. Our body needs iron for the production of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen through the body.
People low in iron can be low in hemoglobin and can have iron deficiency anemia. Without sufficient iron intake, the body cannot perform it’s essential functions and we can experience it by feeling fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath.
There are two types of dietary iron: ‘heme’ and ‘non-heme.’
We easily absorb heme iron into the body and has an absorption rate of around 40%. We only find heme iron in animal-based sources such as red meat and organs.
Non-heme iron is typically found in plant-based sources (although some animal-based sources also contain it), such as beans, grains, pulses (chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, legumes), nuts, seeds, and leafy vegetables. Non-heme iron is harder to absorb, with an absorption rate of around 5-12%.
It’s important to eat plenty of iron-rich plant for sufficient absorption and optimal iron intake.
What are the best sources of iron in a Plant-Based Diet?
We all know Popeye is famous for his strength and love of spinach. However, while spinach is a good source of iron, the best source of plant-based iron is found in the legume family, such as lentils and beans.
A cup of cooked lentils, for example, provides as much as 34% of your daily intake of iron. Beans (especially soybeans) and chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are also excellent sources of iron.
Nuts, such as hazelnuts and almonds, and seeds are the next best sources of iron.
Green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens and spinach are also ideal, however substantial quantities are needed for optimal iron absorption.
How Can I Improve my Iron Absorption?
One of the best ways to improve iron absorption in non-heme diets is to consume Vitamin C with any iron-rich foods you eat. For example, eating an orange with almonds or eating tomatoes with beans improves iron absorption. The absorption rate can be improved by almost 70% when you consume at least 100mg of Vitamin C with your vegetarian meals.
Vitamin A-rich foods are also a great way to improve iron absorption. Studies have found that iron absorption is increased by 140% when you eat grains with rich sources of beta-carotene. Try adding sweet potato or red bell pepper to your next rice dish.
However, some foods can reduce iron absorption.
Beverages rich in polyphenols like coffee or green tea can reduce iron absorption by up to 70%. This can be easily resolved by leaving about an hour or two around a meal to drink coffee or tea.
Why people who eat Plant-Based diets improve their Iron levels?
Plant-based sources of iron can be just as effective as animal-based sources if you take the necessary steps to maximize iron absorption. Incorporate beans, pulses, lots of green, leafy vegetables and vitamin C-rich foods into your diet and avoid coffee and tea right after your meals.
Most choices in a whole foods plant-based diet contain iron, along with other essential nutrients like zinc, magnesium and folate and Vitamin C, therefore, not only is iron absorbed but also other essential nutrients for hemoglobin production.