Meeting iron requirements on a plant-based diet
One of the most common misconceptions by those unfamiliar with plant-based nutrition, and also a common worry for those new to a vegan diet is that it is difficult to meet iron needs without consuming meat.
Different type of iron in food
There are two types of iron: haem (found in animal products) and non-haem (found in plants). Haem iron is readily absorbed, even when we do not need more iron, which many believe gives it an edge over non-haem iron. However, once iron has been absorbed, our bodies are not very efficient at excreting any excess and as iron is a pro-oxidant, excess amounts in our bodies can damage our cells and DNA, and cause inflammation. Non-haem iron, on the other hand is not absorbed as readily and that is actually preferable, as it allows our bodies to adjust uptake depending on our needs. If our reserves are low, we absorb more from plant foods, and conversely if our reserves are sufficient, our bodies absorb less.
Plant sources of iron
There is an abundance of plant-based iron sources, including tofu, tempeh, soya beans, lentils, chickpeas, beans, oats, chia, flax, pumpkin, sesame and hemp seeds, dried fruit, avocado, leafy greens, dark chocolate and fortified breakfast cereals. As long as your diet is varied and balanced, and you are enhancing absorption and avoiding reducing absorption, there is little risk of becoming iron deficient.
Dietary factors affecting absorption of iron
There are certain dietary factors which affect the absorption of non-haem iron. Vitamin C assists absorption, therefore plant-based iron sources should be eaten alongside fruit or vegetables. You can also soak and sprout grains and pulses such as dried beans, chickpeas, quinoa and lentils to increase iron availability. To prevent reduced absorption, you should avoid drinks containing tannins and polyphenols with a meal, such as tea, coffee and red wine. Calcium supplements also affect absorption, so if you are taking these for a medical condition, avoid consuming them within an hour of eating.
Increasing iron intake on a plant-based diet
Here are some examples of ways in which you can increase iron absorption:
- If you are having peanut butter on toast, add some blueberries on top, or have a satsuma, or slices of apple on the side
- Add berries or grated apple to your overnight oats, porridge or breakfast cereal
- Have chopped vegetables with hummus as a snack
- Aim to have a variety of colourful vegetables with every main meal
- Squeeze a small amount of lemon juice over cooked tofu or tempeh
- Experiment with sprouting. This is really good fun and it is very satisfying to see your grains and pulses start to grow their little shoots. There is plenty of information online on sprouting, without having to invest in expensive kit, but always ensure that you practice good hygiene otherwise bacteria can be introduced. Pregnant women should avoid eating raw sprouts and cook thoroughly before eating. For example, they can be added to a meatless spaghetti Bolognese, or stew
By Lisa Simon, Registered Dietitian at Plant Based Health Online