How This Dietitian Recommends Boosting Your Plant-Based Iron
Iron is a mineral with many important functions. It helps make hormones, maintain a healthy immune system, and it plays a vital role in forming hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body.
It’s a nutrient that’s especially important to anyone following a plant-based diet as plant-based foods often have less iron than their animal counterparts.
Does the Type of Iron Matter?
Iron exists as two types, heme and non-heme.
Heme iron is found in animal foods, such as meat, seafood, and poultry, and is easily absorbed by the body.
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods including nuts, seeds, and legumes. It’s also added to many iron-enriched grain products such as breakfast cereal, pasta, and bread. Non-heme iron is not absorbed in the body as well as heme iron, making it an important nutrient for those following a plant-based diet to pay attention to.
How Much Iron Do I Need?
Daily iron requirements are based on gender and age.
Health Canada recommends women aged 19 to 50 get eighteen mg of iron per day. During pregnancy, the daily requirement increases to twenty seven mg per day. Women over the age of 51 and adult men require eight mg per day.
However, if you follow a plant-based diet, you’ll need more iron. Plant-based adults require 1.8 times more iron.
What if I Don’t Get Enough Iron?
A low iron dietcan cause iron-deficiency anemia, a condition where your body can’t make enough oxygen-carrying hemoglobin. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, headaches, brittle nails, dizziness, and pale skin.
You may be at risk for iron-deficiency anemia if you’re not getting enough iron from food, you are’t absorbing iron properly, you require higher amounts of iron (i.e. pregnant people or those following a plant-based diet) or you are losing iron regularly (i.e. frequent blood donors or people with heavy periods).
Some people can benefit from taking an iron supplement. For instance, Health Canada recommends that pregnant people take a prenatal supplement that includes iron (16-20 mg) to meet increased iron needs.
If you think you’re falling short on your iron intake and could benefit from taking a supplement, speak with your health care provider first. They can tell you if you need an iron supplement and recommend the amount of iron that’s best for you. Taking too much iron from supplements can have serious health risks since it can build up in your body.
How Can I Increase My Iron Intake Naturally?
Adding lots of iron-rich foods to your diet can help ensure you meet r daily requirements. Some of the best plant-based food sources of iron include:
|Lentils, cooked (3/4 cup)||4.9|
|White beans (3/4 cup)||4.9|
|Pumpkin seeds, roasted (1/4 cup)||4.7|
|Tempeh (150 g)||4.1|
|Spinach, cooked (1 cup)||3.9|
|Black beans (3/4 cup)||3.9|
|Instant oats (enriched with iron), plain (28 g packet)||3.6|
|Chickpeas (3/4 cup)||3.5|
|Quinoa, cooked (1 cup)||2.9|
|Kidney beans (3/4 cup)||2.9|
|Tahini (2 tablespoons)||2.7|
|Tofu, firm (150 g)||2.4|
|Hemp seeds, hulled (2 tablespoons)||2.3|
|Cashews (1/4 cup)||2.2|
|Sunflower seeds, dry roasted (1/4 cup)||1.2|
Small dietary adjustments can maximize your body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron at meals.
Combining iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C can also boost absorption. Fruits and vegetables especially high in vitamin C include red, green, and yellow bell peppers, strawberries, kiwi, oranges, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and tomatoes.
Some easy iron and vitamin C combos to help boost your intake include lentils stewed in tomato sauce, hummus served with red pepper, or warm oats mixed with strawberries.
Cooking in cast iron pots and pans is another way to add some extra iron to your diet. Studies have shown that acidic foods that have a high moisture content, such as tomato sauce and applesauce, absorb the most iron when cooked in cast iron.
Reading food labels can also help you choose foods higher in iron. Foods that contain more than 15% DV (percent daily value) of iron are considered a good source of the mineral, whereas foods with less than 5% DV are considered low.
Eating plant-based foods (beans, lentils, grains) that have been soaked, sprouted, or fermented can also mean better iron absorption. These preparation methods help decrease phytates, natural compounds that bind to iron, and make absorption difficult.
Some dietary factors can reduce your body’s ability to absorb iron. Calcium supplements, as well as tannins in tea and coffee, can all bind to iron and reduce its absorption, so it’s best to avoid these around mealtimes if you’re trying to boost your iron intake.
Adequate iron intake is important for your health and wellness, especially for people following a plant-based diet. Being aware of your iron intake from whole food sources and speaking with your health care provider if you suspect you’re not getting enough are key to making sure you’re meeting your daily requirement.
How do you make sure you’re getting enough iron in your plant-based diet?
Michelle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist dedicated to helping individuals achieve their health and wellness goals, one meal at a time. She Specializes in bringing together the science of nutrition and the art of healthy eating by offering practical advice, realistic tools and personalized healthy eating recommendations to her clients. Her practice focus is weight loss, general healthy eating, chronic disease prevention, and heart health.