Power Up With Vegan Iron-Rich Foods

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Vegan iron rich foods like carrots, avocado, tomatoes, lentils and more in the display

Vegan Iron-Rich Foods | Daily recommendation | Deficiency risk | Animal-sourced iron vs. plant-based iron | Benefits | Symptoms | Supplementation | Tips

Iron is an essential mineral that our bodies need in order to function properly. It helps us produce energy, carry oxygen throughout our bodies, and fight off infection.

People who follow a vegan diet do not eat meat (a good source of iron) and are therefore at risk of iron deficiency. This can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, and a weakened immune system among most vegans.

However, getting enough iron from a vegan diet is possible, as many plant-based foods contain significant amounts of the mineral.

Best vegan iron rich foods

There is a wide variety of iron-rich foods to choose from. Here are some of the most commonly available foods you can include in your diet:

1. Nuts

Consuming nuts is an easy way to get a good amount of iron. Nuts are versatile foods that can be incorporated into several dishes or can be eaten on the go.

28g of each variety of nuts has the given amount of iron:

  • Spanish peanuts- 0.36mg 
  • Cashew nuts – 1.8mg
  • Almonds -5.2mg
  • Pistachios -4.8mg

2. Seeds

Seeds make a great snack and are a great source of iron. Adding them to salads, smoothies, and other dishes will ensure you get enough iron in your diet.

28g of each variety of seed has the given amount of iron:

  • Chia seeds- 9.6mg
  • Pumpkin seeds- 3.7mg
  • Hemp seeds- 2mg
  • Sesame seeds- 0.1mg

3. Beans and peas

Beans and peas are great plant-based protein, fiber, and iron sources. They are filling and provide a variety of health benefits.

  • Kidney beans (184g)- 12.31mg
  • Green peas (145g)-2.1mg
  • Dried no added-fat chickpeas (180g)-5.2mg

4. Legumes and lentils

Legumes are packed with other essential nutrients, such as B vitamins, calcium, and potassium. Adding lentils and legumes to a dish can make it filling and protein-rich. This can keep you energized for a long time.

  • Tempeh (166g)-4.5mg
  • Soy protein powder (28g)- 3.40mg
  • Hard tofu (122g)- 3.35mg
  • Cooked soybeans (185g)- 8.9mg
  • Lentils (192g)- 12.50mg

5. Dried fruits

Dried fruits tend to be higher in minerals and vitamins than their fresh counterparts. Thus, adding them to your diet can provide you with a tasty snack while helping you meet your daily iron needs.

28g of dried fruits contain the given amount of iron:

  • Apricots- 4.3mg
  • Dates- 1.6mg
  • Raisins- 2.9mg
  • Figs (50g)-3.3mg

6. Dark leafy greens

Dark leafy greens are great sources of iron and other essential nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, K, and C. Moreover, leafy greens can be used in a variety of dishes, making them an easy way to get iron into your diet.

  • Spinach (28g)- 2.9mg
  • Kale (28g)- 0.3mg
  • Beet greens (38g)-1mg
  • Swiss chard (36g)-0.7mgs

7. Millets and quinoa 

Millets and quinoa are great gluten-free sources of iron and other essential vitamins and minerals. Quinoa is a superfood and a great source of complete proteins. On the other hand, millets have insoluble fibers that help support the good bacteria in the digestive system.

  • Quinoa uncooked (28g) – 1.3mg
  • Sorghum uncooked (1 cup)- 6.5mg

8. Green vegetables 

Including green vegetables in your diet is an easy way to get iron and other essential nutrients. Boiled green vegetables often make a  great side dish to any meal.

  • Broccoli (76g)- 0.7mg
  • Brussels sprouts (88g)-1.2mg

9. Molasses

This healthy sweetener is a great source of iron. Moreover, it can be used in baking goods and other dishes as a substitute for sugar.

  • Molasses (100g)- 4.7mg

What is the daily recommended iron intake?

The daily recommended iron intake should vary depending on factors such as age, gender, and health status. For instance, females in their reproductive age require a higher amount of iron per day than their male counterparts.

The recommended dietary allowance for vegans is 1.8 times [1]National Institutes of Health: Iron higher than that of nonvegetarians. Generally speaking, the following guidelines are used for healthy vegans:

  1. Children/teens male (9-13 years) 14.4 mg
  2. Children/teens female (9-13 years) 14.4mg
  3. Men (19 years and above) 14.4mg
  4. Women (14-18 years) 27mg
  5. Women (19-50 years) 32.4mg
  6. Women (Women 51 years and above) 14.4mg
  7. Pregnant women (19-50 years) 48.6mg
  8. Breastfeeding women (19-50 years) 16.2mg
  9. Breastfeeding women (19-50 years) 10mg

It is important to note that these are only general guidelines, and you should consult your doctor or a dietitian to find the amount of iron that is right for you.

Vegans and iron deficiencies

Iron deficiency occurs when there is a reduction in the supply of iron to the tissues in the body. This happens when the stores of iron in the body are depleted, leading to a condition called iron deficiency anemia [2]Johns Hopkins: Medicine: Iron-Deficiency Anemia.

According to the World Health Organization [3]World Health Organization: Anaemia in women and children anemia estimates of 2021, 39.8% of children under the age of 5 and 29.9% of women in their reproductive age suffer from anemia. 

Iron deficiency anemia results in microcytic erythrocytes (red blood cells that are smaller than usual) and inadequate synthesis of hemoglobin. This abnormality further leads to inadequacy of oxygen supply to cells, tissues, and organs.

To avoid these health risks, those on a plant-based diet must ensure they get enough iron. According to studies, iron deficiency is more common among vegetarians and vegans [4]National Library of Medicine: Iron Status of Vegetarian Adults: A Review of Literature than people who eat animal products.

Although you might assume that having low stores of iron correlates with the amount of iron you consume. But it is more related to the type of dietary iron you ingest.

Animal-sourced iron vs. plant-based iron

It is important to know the difference between heme iron and non-heme iron when stepping on a vegan diet. The difference is central to the amount of iron you will need to consume as a vegan.

Animal-based iron sources

Animal-sourced iron is known as heme iron [5]National Library of Medicine: Biochemistry, Iron Absorption, and it is found in animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, and other seafood. 

The body absorbs this type of dietary iron more easily because it contains transferrin [6]National Library of Medicine: Biochemistry, Transferrin – a protein that helps transport iron from the blood to other body tissues. This protein is present in higher concentrations in animal-based iron than in plant-based iron.

However, research has also found links between heme iron consumption and chronic health problems. Higher heme iron intake has been associated with significant risks of type 2 diabetes [7]PubMed: Dietary iron intake, body iron stores, and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. This was also true in the case of cancer [8]PubMed: Iron and cancer risk–a systematic review and meta-analysis of the epidemiological evidence

Plant-based iron sources

Plant-based iron is known as non-heme iron and is found in plant-based foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, tofu, and dark leafy greens. The body does not easily absorb this type of dietary iron. This is because non-heme iron does not contain transferrin, and when present, it is found in lower concentrations than heme iron.

In addition, many plant-based foods contain compounds such as phytates and tannins [9]Harvard T.H. Chan: Are Anti-Nutrients Harmful? that can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron.

Therefore, vegans and vegetarians require more dietary iron than their meat-eating counterparts to make up for the difference in iron absorption.

Benefits of an iron-rich vegan diet

Iron impacts the health and functioning of nearly every part of the body. An iron-rich vegan diet can have the following benefits:

1. Reduces the risk of anemia

Vegans are at a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia due to the lower absorption rate of nonheme iron. 

Therefore, it is important for vegans to get enough iron in their diets. Consuming a diet rich in iron-rich foods can help reduce the risk of anemia.

2. Encourages the synthesis of hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is a molecule found in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body.

 Iron helps synthesize hemoglobin, which can be beneficial for carrying oxygen to the cells and tissues.

3. Boosts energy levels

Iron helps transport oxygen throughout the body and cells, which can help boost energy levels. 

Consuming a diet high in iron-rich foods could help give the body an extra boost of energy when needed.

4. It may improve mental health

Iron plays a role in brain and nervous system functioning. Low iron levels can lead to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and confusion. 

Consuming an iron-rich vegan diet may help to improve mental health and reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders.

5. Improves physical health

Iron is an essential nutrient that helps carry oxygen to all body parts, including the skin.

Moreover, this can help improve overall physical health by making hair and nails stronger and healthier.

Symptoms of iron deficiency

Iron deficiency can cause a variety of symptoms, some of which may not be obvious. The common symptoms of iron deficiency [10]Harvard T.H. Chan: Iron include

  1. Fatigue
  2. Pale skin
  3. Brittle nails
  4. Hair loss
  5. Dizziness and confusion
  6. Weakened immune system
  7. Shortness of breath
  8. Cravings for dirt, clay, or ice

Vegan iron supplementation

If you are not getting enough iron from your diet, there are vegan-friendly supplements available. These supplements often include additional vitamins and minerals that can help support the absorption of non-heme iron.

Some of the over-the-counter supplements may contain more than 65mg of iron. Such high dosages may cause side effects like nausea, constipation, and abdominal pain. 

Speaking to a healthcare provider before taking any supplement is important. Discuss the correct dosage for your individual needs before starting to consume supplements.

Tips to increase iron absorption in your body

Consuming iron-rich foods is of no use if your body cannot absorb this mineral. Here are some tips for increasing plant-based dietary iron intake and absorption:

1. Vitamin C

To ensure adequate iron stores, consume a variety of iron-rich plant-based foods. Pair them with vitamin C to increase absorption.

Vitamin C is found in foods like:

  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Oranges
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Tangerine
  • Peppers
  • Leafy greens

2. Add foods with vitamin A

Inadequacy of vitamin A can cause decreased iron absorption, so make sure to include foods rich in vitamin A in your diet.

3. Avoid pairing calcium-rich foods

Some studies have shown that calcium [11]PubMed: The effect of calcium on iron absorption could block the absorption of non-heme iron. It is best to avoid pairing calcium-rich foods with iron-rich meals. Instead, have your calcium-rich foods and iron-rich foods at different times of the day.

4. Eat soaked legumes

Consume legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas thrice weekly. However, ensure to soak them overnight to reduce the levels of phytates and tannins, which can inhibit iron absorption.

5. Use cast iron vessels

When cooking iron-rich foods, use cast iron pans. These help increase the quantity of dietary iron absorbed by the food.

6. Avoid tea and coffee

Tea and coffee contain tannins that can reduce iron absorption. Avoiding these beverages might be a good idea if you wish to ensure better iron absorption in your body.

7. Try Supplements

If you are still not getting enough dietary iron, you should discuss taking a supplement with your healthcare provider. Also, ensure your supplements are not high in vitamin A or calcium, which may hinder your iron absorption.

Conclusion

Vegan foods can provide enough of this essential mineral if the diet is carefully planned. By following the tips above, vegans can ensure they get all the iron they need to maintain optimal health.

It is important to remember that everyone’s dietary needs are unique. So, it is best to consult your personal doctor or a dietitian to find the amount of iron that is right for you.

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