Welcome to part 2 of our 3 part blog series on getting enough iron on a plant-based diet. If you missed part 1, check it out here.
In this blog post we’ll be covering ways to promote better iron absorption naturally, in order to boost iron levels and avoid certain traps that we often unknowingly fall into that can hinder absorption.
This advice is for those seeking iron absorption advice, whether you’re eating a meat-free diet, choosing to supplement with iron or consuming meat as your iron source.
Ways to promote better iron absorption
The tricky thing with plant-based sources of iron is that not only is non-heme iron not absorbed as willingly by the body as heme iron is, but many plant foods contain compounds, such as phyates and tannins that can actually hinder iron absorption. Alas, do not fear.
Here are my 6 tips to help you get around this bump in the road.
No. 1 – Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C
The absorption of non-heme iron found in plant foods can be boosted when eaten with vitamin C-rich foods like citrus foods, strawberries, kiwi fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
Here’s some examples to give you an idea:
Porridge oats topped with hemp seeds and strawberries
Overnight oats with kiwi and flax seeds
Chia pudding with blueberries
Mexican rice and beans with tomato salsa and salad
Lentil and spinach soup topped with red pepper and a squeeze of lemon.
Tofu, edamame, red pepper and broccoli stir fry
Coconut, sweet potato and chickpea curry with a squeeze of lime, topped with fresh coriander and seeds
You get the point 😊
The take-away from this: Vitamin C increases the bioavailability of the iron and we should add them to our plate with some iron-rich foods every day.
No.2 – Avoid calcium and iron-rich foods/supplements at the same time
Calcium actually competes with iron for absorption, and generally, calcium wins the battle, significantly decreasing the amount of iron absorbed at a meal.
That’s why it’s a good idea to eat iron rich foods away from calcium rich foods so as to give the iron a chance at being absorbed.
Of course, you don’t need to be super strict with this. Nature knows best, and generally you’ll manage just fine when combining natural plant foods. It’s more of a problem when you’re adding supplements into the mix.
If you’re taking iron supplements, just make sure to take them away from food, especially from a calcium rich meal, and definitely away from a calcium or bone supportive supplement since calcium supplements will compete with iron for uptake in your intestinal tract.
No.3 – Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages with your meals
Coffee (yes, even decaf) and tea contain tannins that inhibit iron absorption by up to a whopping 50%! Therefore, I highly recommend you always make sure to drink your coffee or tea at least an hour or two before or after your meals.
Tannins can also be found in red grapes and chocolate, so same as above, consume these foods an hour before or an hour after the iron-rich meal, then you’ll have little to no effect on iron your absorption.
If you know you’re low in iron, this is definitely one step I highly recommend you follow.
No. 4 – Fight the phytates
Phytic acid, or phytate, is found in many plant foods, especially seeds, grains, legumes and nuts. Phytic acid impairs mineral absorption of iron, zinc and calcium, therefore if you’re consuming meals that contain phytic acid, these foods can actually reduce the mineral absorption from your meal. Eeek!
So what’s the answer? By soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking these foods, you can reduce the phytate content significantly.
Soaking: soaking your grains, nuts, seeds and legumes in water overnight is an excellent way to reduce their phytate content. It also means your grains and dried beans take less time to cook.
Instead of soaking them over-night, you could soak your rice in the morning when you wake up, and when you get back from work at the end of the day, you can simply cook it as you normally would. No extra fuss.
Another popular way that people are doing this is with their overnight oats. Simply soak your oats and all the other goodies you’re adding e.g chia seeds/sunflower seeds/almonds etc. in your plant-based milk or water and top off with fresh fruits in the morning.
Sprouting: sprouting seeds, grains and legumes, also known as germination is excellent for denaturing phytic acid. See my previous blog here on how to sprout grains.
Fermentation: Ah fermentation. My favourite food preparation technique 😊 Organic acids, formed during fermentation, promote phytate breakdown. Think sourdough bread, sauerkraut, kimchi and tempeh. See my fermentation blog here.
Combining these methods can significantly reduce the phytate content, and once you’re on a roll, it’s really no extra hassle.
5. Cook with cast iron
This may come as a surprise to some, but cooking in cast iron pans actually increases the iron content of your food – especially when you cook a food containing vitamin-C in it.
If you cook acidic foods such as tomatoes in cast iron, they will actually help to leach small amounts of iron from the pan.
6. Ensure you’re getting enough vitamin B12 and folate
To produce haemoglobin and red blood cells, our bodies need iron, vitamin B-12, folate and other nutrients from the foods you eat.
Ensure your diet is loaded with a whole range of heatlhy fresh foods and keep an eye on your levels.
Plant based folate sources:
Green leafy veggies
Nut and Seeds
Plant based B12 sources:
Fortified foods such as
Plant based milks
Some soy products
B12 supplements (see part three for more info).
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.