Iron, along with B12 and protein have to be some of the most commonly questioned nutrients when someone goes plant-based, vegan, or simply chooses not to eat meat.
“Where will you get your iron from?”
“Will you get enough?”
“Don’t you need meat for iron?”
“Where do you get your B12 from?”
For those wondering whether you can get enough iron eating a plant-based diet, you’ve come to the right place!
And don’t forget to check out part two and three of this blog series covering ways to promote better iron absorption and supplementation, coming soon!
What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that helps form and oxygenate our blood cells and haemoglobin.
Iron’s main job is to carry oxygen in the haemoglobin of red blood cells from our lungs to the rest of our body to maintain basic life functions.
Without healthy red blood cells, our bodies can’t get enough oxygen. A lack of red blood cells is called iron deficiency anaemia. (More on that in a bit.)
Iron also helps to maintain a healthy and normal immune system.
Lower iron levels have been linked to a decreased immune system, meaning more susceptibility to catching whatever is going around, or not being able to recover so well from an illness.
Why is this?
Well iron is necessary for immune cell proliferation and maturation, particularly lymphocytes, which are associated with helping us to keep healthy.
Are you feeling sluggish or overly tired? That could be your iron levels talking.
Our bodies need iron to convert food to energy. Without enough iron, our bodies produce less energy (also known as ATP, the body’s primary energy source.) Less ATP production = less energy. This can be one reason why those lacking iron are easily tired and fatigued.
Our cognitive function is also linked to our iron intake!
If you’re chugging back coffee after coffee to maintain focus, are unable to concentrate during work or school, or can’t get your head around something, it could be your iron levels!
Cognitive function includes brain functions such as learning, language, memory, ability to concentrate and stay attentive, alertness, problem solving and intelligence.
Since iron plays such an important role in maintaining normal cognitive function, it’s vital that we maintain a satisfactory level of iron in our bodies to help ensure our brain is performing optimally.
Iron is also necessary to maintain healthy cells, skin, hair, and nails. A lack of iron may even be the cause of unexplained hair loss.
Since iron is essential for proper growth and development, and is supportive to many biological functions from energy production, oxygen transport to synthesis of hormones, it’s vital that we get our levels checked to make sure we’re consuming enough through our food.
Which brings me to the question..
Where do we get our iron from?
Types of Iron
As our bodies do not produce iron, we need to make sure we include sufficient iron as part of our healthy diets. There are two types of iron:
Heme iron: found in meats, fish, and poultry. This type of iron is in foods that contain haemoglobin. The body absorbs roughly 7-35 percent of heme iron.
Non-heme iron: Found in plant foods. The body absorbs roughly 2-20% of non-heme iron.
Now, you’ll see a big difference there on the absorption of the difference irons, but do not fear. Although heme iron from meat is more readily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron, people who do not eat animal foods still get adequate iron from plant-based sources.
The absorption percentage is lower for non-heme iron because it is more sensitive to other dietary factors that may limit its absorption (we shall be covering this further in the blog series), however, absorbency of non-heme iron is highly increased when attention is payed to certain factors that may affect absorption (more on that in part two of this blog post).
Signs of Iron Deficiency
When the body does not get enough iron, it is unable to produce normal amounts of red blood cells, and iron deficiency anaemia may result. In fact, iron deficiency is the most common deficiency of vitamins or minerals worldwide!
- Difficulty maintaining body temperature
- Cold extremities e.g fingers and toes
- Pale skin and fingernails
- Suppressed immune function and increased susceptibility to infection
- Irregular heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
There are many forms of anemia, each with its own cause, therefore if you suspect it given the symptoms, please check with your doctor before supplementing or increasing your iron. The symptoms for low iron can also present themselves with too much iron, or you may not have any symptoms at all!
The two most common types of anemia include:
Iron deficiency anemia
Caused by, you guessed it, a lack of iron in the body. Our bone marrow needs iron to make haemoglobin and without adequate supply, our bodies can’t produce enough haemoglobin for red blood cells.
This type of anemia often occurs in pregnant women, since they need to create even more blood for another human, but is also caused by blood loss, such as menstrual bleeding and a poor diet.
Vitamin deficiency anemia
In addition to iron, our bodies needs folate and vitamin B12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production.
Additionally, some people may consume enough B-12, but their bodies aren’t able to process the vitamin. This can lead to vitamin deficiency anemia, also known as pernicious anemia. Check out part three of the blog coming soon for more info on correcting B12 deficiency.
Raising your Iron Levels
The good news is that we can easily boost our iron stores by eating a plethora of iron rich plant based foods, whilst combining them with iron-absorption enhancing methods. Read on for more!
Plant-based sources of iron
Dark leafy greens e.g kale, collard greens, chard, bok choy, broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage and brussels sprouts. Beetroot and sea veggies.
Dried fruits e.g raisins, dates, figs, prunes, apricots
Lentils, and beans e.g black beans, lima beans, navy beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, soybeans; tofu, tempeh
Fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal
Nuts and seeds
Cashews, almonds, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, pine, pistachio, chia, flax, hemp
Blackstrap molasses, nettles, dandelion, spirulina, fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, vegan cheeses and dairy free milk alternatives.
How much iron do I need a day?
- Infants: 6-12 months: 11mg a day
- Kids: Ages 1-8: 7-10mg a day
- Adolescents: Ages 9-13: 8mg a day
- Females: Women Ages 14-50: 15-18mg a day
- Women Ages 51+: 8mg
- Pregnant women: 27mg a day
- Lactating women: 9-10mg a day
- Males: Ages 14+: 8-11mg a day
Check out this list on how much iron is in each food
And here on Simple Happy Kitchen.
Check out part two and three of the blog series soon on getting enough iron on a plant-based diet.
Any questions? Drop into your local Nourish store to chat with our expert team and explore our full range of foods, supplements and skincare. You can also find our full product range in our online store.
*Please note that while we are knowledgeable about our products and nutrition, this blog should never be a substitute for medical advice and attention.
Please remember that you should always obtain the all-clear from your doctor before starting any new supplement plan or diet if you’re on any medication.