One inquisitive omnivore’s journey towards healthier and more compassionate eating…

(Click here for why I started)

(MEATLESS/VEGETARIAN/VEGAN) “Get some meat in you!” A good friend of mine said that to me the other day because I’m always cold. She thinks I need more iron in my diet, and a good source of iron is meat—something, as you know, I haven’t been eating a lot of lately.

Vegetarians and vegans can still enjoy an iron-rich diet with healthy grains and vegetables.
Vegetarians and vegans can still enjoy an iron-rich diet with healthy grains and vegetables./Photo credit: abcnews.go.com

Now, I don’t know if I actually have some sort of iron-deficiency, or maybe I just need to wear more sweaters, but it did get me thinking.

Does a plant-based diet provide us with enough iron?

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency, and the leading cause of anemia in the world. Iron is an essential mineral that’s needed to transport oxygen and nutrients throughout our body. If our cells aren’t getting enough oxygen then we could experience the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue 
  • Pale skin
  • Weakness & dizziness
  • Trouble maintaining body temperature 
  • Frequent headaches

There are two types of iron: Heme, the kind you get from meat, and Non-heme, from plants.

The body absorbs the meat-sourced iron more easily, so vegetarians and vegans should especially keep track of their iron intake. Women should also take note since we don’t store iron as efficiently as men. Though not to be out done completely, non-heme iron is better regulated and causes less damage to the body.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), these are the recommended daily amounts of iron we need:

  • Women (19-50):  18 mg
  • Women (51+):  8 mg            
  • Pregnant Women:  27 mg
  • Men:  8 mg

Now, getting back to my original question: Can we get enough iron on a plant-based diet? YES!

The trick is to not only eat foods that contain substantial amounts of iron, but to make sure you’re body is also absorbing the iron as efficiently as possible.

Tips to help boost your body’s iron absorption:

1. Eat high iron foods in combination with ones rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits, pineapples, melons, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, berries, cauliflower and cabbage.

Eating iron-rich foods in combination with ones high in vitamin C helps your body to absorb the iron more efficiently./Photo credit: simplynutricising.com
Eating iron-rich foods in combination with ones high in vitamin C helps your body absorb the iron more efficiently./Photo credit: simplynutricising.com

2. Cook with cast-iron pots & pans — helps to increase the amount of iron you absorb, especially when you cook acidic foods like tomatoes or tomato sauce in them.

3. Avoid tea and coffee when eating high iron meals because they contain polyphenols and tannins which can inhibit iron absorption.

4. Hold off on the calcium as well — it competes for absorption with iron and reduces its uptake. Instead eat calcium-rich foods at least a half-hour before or after your iron-dense meals.

Non-Heme Iron Foods:

Recipes like this tempeh and bell pepper combo helps improve your bodies iron absorption./Photo credit: tempehgirls.com
Recipes like this tempeh and bell pepper combo helps improve your bodies iron absorption./Photo credit: tempehgirls.com
  • Beans (kidney, lima, pinto, black, navy, garbanzo)
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Soybeans
  • Tempeh
  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, swiss chard)
  • Whole grains & bran cereals
  • Quinoa
  • Oatmeal
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Dried fruit
  • Green beans 
  • Peas
  • Potato

So for breakfast, why not have a melon with your oatmeal and then for lunch, have a dark green, leafy salad with some chickpeas, bell peppers, and strawberries. With just a little ingenuity, you’ll see how easy it is for vegetarians and vegans to enjoy iron-rich meals.

— Lisa Singer, exclusive to Global Animal

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