During my Diet Tech program we saw a big fuss over iron and as a vegan I’ve seen a big fuss over iron, should there really be such a fuss? Well yes, actually there should be.
Iron is a trace mineral that aids in carrying oxygen throughout the blood cells and in metabolic reactions in all cells. There are two types of iron, heme that you get from animal flesh and non-heme that you get from plants. Iron deficiency is a real problem in the U.S. (it also happens to be the most common nutrient deficiency on the planet) and not just for those who abstain from animal products. Approximately more than 1.6 billion people have iron deficiency anemia, may of them preschool age children and expecting moms. Iron absorption is key to preventing an iron deficiency. While the heme iron is better absorbed dietary factors could inhibit some absorption, these include phytates, some vegetable proteins, calcium, and polyphenols.1
So does this mean that you shouldn’t have anything with your iron-rich foods? Nope, cause that’s going to get old really fast. If anything, you should have a variety of iron-rich foods, and make sure to eat them with a vitamin C source. I love to put lemon juice on my dandelion greens. Raw peppers are also a great source of vitamin C, they go very nicely on a spinach salad.
The iron needs for vegetarians are higher than for non-vegetarians. Since people that abstain from meats are not getting as much heme iron, the more absorbable form, they need to up their intake of non-heme iron (plant-based) by about 1.8 times more. The DRI of iron for men is 15mg and 33mg for premenopausal women. Good sources of plant-based iron include: fortified cereals, spinach, sea vegetables, beans, tofu, nuts and seeds.2
Iron deficiency, symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, decreased mental alertness and pale lips/gums, however, the one thing you should NEVER EVER do is self-diagnose or treat iron deficiency on your own. Is there such a thing as iron toxicity – you bet there is and guess what? The symptoms are similar to deficiency.
So if you suspect you may have any kind of deficiency please go to your practitioner of choice and get the appropriate tests.
1. Understanding Nutrition by Whitney & Rolfes, 12th edition, 2011.
2. Vegan for Life by Norris & Messina, 2011.