The Ins & Outs of Iron on a Plant-Based Lifestyle
Let’s talk about iron & living a plant-based lifestyle. Whether you follow a plant-based diet or not, I’m here to tell you all about how I keep my levels in check, the benefits of getting enough iron, the risks associated with deficiencies & my favourite iron-rich foods
FACT: Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in North America & especially common in women (almost 10% of women are deficient). Yet, iron is one of the most vital nutrients for the adequate function of the largest organs in our bodies!
I was borderline diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia back in university & was put on iron supplement medication. And let me tell you, I quickly went off it! Let’s just put it this way, the bathroom troubles I experienced weren’t fun & to be honest with you, they weren’t manageable! I was bloated, constipated, nauseous (sorry for the TMI) & with the busy lifestyle I led (& still lead today), I could no longer fathom the idea of constantly feeling that way when I had classes to attend & exams to study for.
For this reason, I can’t tell you if iron supplementation works because I didn’t take it long enough to do a second round of blood work to monitor whether my levels had changed. But, what I can tell you is everything I’ve learned about iron through my personal experience, symptoms & lots of research.
AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, what I can also tell you is that based on my most recent blood tests (taken just a few days ago), I am no longer iron deficient AT ALL, and this while following a plant-based diet! I can’t tell you guys how happy I am & it makes me even happier to be able to share my fave iron-rich plant-based food options in hopes that they can help & inspire you to incorporate or make some changes to improve your iron levels if need be!
WHAT IS IRON?
Iron is present in a substance called hemoglobin, found in red blood cells & responsible for carrying oxygen in the blood from the lungs to the rest of the body to our cells.
If iron levels are low, we have a harder time producing enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells & the body struggles to transport oxygen to the brain, tissues, cells & muscles, which often leads to feelings of chronic exhaustion & weakness (& many others which we’ll discuss shortly).
Iron isn’t only necessary for oxygen flow in the body but also for: sustained energy levels, healthy metabolism, cellular & enzyme function (it plays a huge role in the enzyme reactions that help the body digest food & absorb nutrients), hormonal balance, brain, heart, skin, nail, metabolic & immune health.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SYMPTOMS OF AN IRON DEFICIENCY?
PSA: Don’t use this list to self-diagnose yourself with a deficiency. Reality is that a lot of the symptoms of some of the most common deficiencies overlap, so it’s never a good idea to take a list & make a clear-cut self-diagnosis without getting a blood test done. Blood tests are the most empirical way to obtain data about the overall state of your health & allow you to make targeted decisions to correct any issues.
Anemia (the result of the body making fewer healthy red blood cells; in industrialized countries, between 2-4% of people have iron deficiency anemia).
Chronic fatigue or low energy levels
Pale or yellow skin
Shortness of breath/abnormal heartbeat
Difficulty exercising & lack of motivation
Muscle weakness/more frequent muscle soreness
Trouble memorizing, focusing, learning, bad memory
Restless leg syndrome: characterized by uncomfortable feelings in the legs, giving a strong urge to move in order to find relief
HOW MUCH IRON DO WE REALLY NEED & WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS FOR DEFICIENCY?
It depends & TBH, I don’t track the amount of every vitamin & mineral I’m ingesting because it would make me crazy & I’d obsessed & that’s not something I want for myself or my mindset. So instead, I go based on how I feel & I do routine blood tests to make sure everything is on track (& thankfully, it is!).
But, if you want to get a bit more factual, it is known that women do need more than men because they naturally lose a certain amount when they menstruate monthly (this is why when a woman begins having a menstrual cycle, daily iron needs increase & as a woman reaches menopause, daily iron needs decrease). Case in point: A woman aged 19-50 needs the most iron of any group (about 18mg). Now, this isn’t to say that children, men or women below or over those ages don’t need iron at all; they still do, they just need less of it (Men of the same age group need about 8mg, as do women aged 51+).
It’s not just being a woman that may put us at risk for iron deficiency. Other risk factors include:
Vegan or vegetarian diets (obviously, animal protein is a high source of iron, especially red meat, so it’s important to bear that in mind when making the transition to one of these two lifestyles)
If you’re pregnant/breastfeeding
If you’ve ever had kidney failure/kidney disease
If you’ve had ulcers
Any condition that involves ironic inflammation because the immune system blocks the release of iron from the body’s iron stores & reduces the amount of iron available to make red blood cells.
If you have GI disorders that limit your ability to absorb nutrients or other gut health issues, such as Crohn’s, celiac or ulcerative colitis (if the lining of the small intestine is inflamed, less iron is absorbed from food into the bloodstream)
If you abuse antacids because they contain calcium that can prevent iron absorption
THE 2 TYPES OF IRON
Before we get into my favourite sources of plant-based iron-rich foods, let’s complicate things a little more. Not because I want to, but because there are two types of iron: heme & non-heme.
Heme iron is found in animal foods & is more absorbable than non-heme iron, found in plant foods. Most people get the majority of their iron from non-heme sources, which is why iron deficiency is so common.
Just to put things into perspective, the bioavailability (a.k.a. how well our body absorbs it). of heme iron from animal sources can be up to 40%. Non-heme iron from plant-based sources, however, has a bioavailability of between 2-20%, depending on the source. For this reason, the RDA for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than for those who eat meat to make up for the lower absorption level from plant-based foods.
When you eat different foods together, they can interact to boost the body’s ability to absorb iron or make it harder to absorb the iron present in the foods. Foods like meat or fish that contain heme iron enhance the body’s ability to absorb the type of iron present in plant foods, so, if you eat non-heme iron (i.e. spinach, beans) WITH an animal source of iron, the body can use the iron better. But, when you’re eating plant-based, this is less of an option because you’re not consuming foods rich in heme iron.
Foods rich in vitamin C can also enhance non-heme iron absorption, so this is something to be mindful of, especially if you’re vegan/vegetarian & you want to ensure that the non-heme iron you’re eating is being absorbed by your body. You may, therefore, consider eating citrus fruits or leafy greens (rich in vitamin C) with beans (high in non-heme iron), for example, or just make a conscious effort to include more vitamin C rich foods in your day to day life OR take a vitamin C supplement.
Foods rich in vitamin C include: papaya, berries, red bell pepper, kiwi, oranges, berries, grapefruit, carrots, tomatoes, cruciferous veggies, came camu, acai, avocado, etc.
Keep in mind that certain substances found naturally in some foods & drinks decrease the body’s ability to absorb iron, for example: if a food contains chemical compounds, such as polyphenols or calcium, it can be harder for the body to absorb/store iron. Foods to be mindful of include: tea, coffee, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds & dairy.
Now, this isn’t to say you have to be preoccupied 200% of the time with what you’re combining your iron-rich foods with because that too, will drive you nuts! Truth is, if you eat a varied diet that includes plenty of real whole foods, you’ll likely meet your iron requirements & trust me, YOU WILL FEEL SOMETHING IS OFF IF YOU AREN’T (& that should be your red flag to go get a blood test done to diagnose why you’re not feeling 100%!).
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF GETTING ENOUGH IRON?
I’m sure by now you could presume that iron has tons of health benefits, some of which include:
Preventing iron-deficiency anemia, which is caused by low production of red blood cells & hemoglobin & translates into a low supply of oxygen reaching the bodily cells. Anemia can lead to low energy but also poor brain function, low immunity. impaired exercise capacity, immune dysfunction, GI disturbances & neuro-cognitive impairment.
Sustained energy levels by ensuring a sufficient supply of oxygen to cells.
Promotes the health of metabolic enzyme processes that the body naturally carries out to digest protein & absorb nutrients from the food we eat. This is why many people with an iron deficiency are chronically exhausted, not motivated to work out, lack concentration, have unstable mood, trouble with muscle coordination (iron is needed for muscle movement because it helps store oxygen in muscles that allows them to move & strengthen) & feel overall sluggish the majority of the time.
Iron is a brain food & is needed to support brain function because it carries oxygen to the brain. A deficiency can impair memory or other mental functions like learning & processing new information or cause delays in motor function.
As mentioned above, iron is needed to properly digest & absorb other nutrients from food due to its role in metabolic enzyme processes. It helps bring enough oxygen to damaged areas of the body, including tissues, organs & cells that are prone to infection or disease development, thereby boosting our ability to fight off toxins & bacteria.
Neurotransmitter functions that support a positive mood rely on adequate levels of iron within the blood. Mood regulation relies on hormone balance, including hormones such as dopamine & serotonin. These hormones cannot be properly synthesized if brain oxygen flows in low. This is why low iron often leads to poor mood & sleep & lack of energy & motivation.
MY FAVE PLANT-BASED HIGH-IRON FOODS
Green veggies (collard greens, swiss chard, spinach, kale, broccoli)
Beans (& homemade bread/baked goods made out of bean/bean flours). My faves are lupini, kidney, black, cannellini, & chickpeas.
Nuts (pecans, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts)
Sunflower seed butter
Sesame seeds & tahini
Seeds (flaxseed, chia, pumpkin & hemp, my all-time fave! I also like to use an unsweetened hemp protein powder in my smoothies/oats/chia puddings)
Raw tiger nuts
Gluten-free rolled & steel cut oats
Cacao nibs & vegan dark chocolate
Dried unsweetened mulberries
Ezekiel bread (sprouted)
Grains (spelt, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth)
Dried unsweetened apricots
Hearts of palm
Dried unsweetened figs
Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules
And some heme iron foods include (for all those who don’t eat plant-based):
Shellfish (especially oysters, mussels, clams)
Liver & other organ meats
Red meat (always make sure to get grass-fed/pasture-raised & organic!)
Canned sardines (always make sure they’re organic & wild & soaked in water!)
Fish (halibut, haddock, salmon, tuna)
I hope this helps my loves!