“I am currently doing Veganuary and it’s going really well but I have a concern about where I will now get my iron from. What are the best sources? Is it something to be concerned about now I am vegan?
Iron deficiency anaemia is one of the most common deficiencies in the world, and one I see often amongst my clients. Studies show that this is not a problem that is unique to those on a plant based diet, it is seen across the board regardless of dietary preferences.
Most of our iron is destined for haemoglobin, a protein molecule in our red blood cells that carries oxygen around our body. Iron is also contained in myoglobin, a protein that functions as an oxygen storage for our muscles. Iron is present in the enzymes catalase and peroxidase. These enzymes protect our bodies against reactive oxygen species. The enzyme cytochrome, that is critical for energy production in our mitochondria, also contains iron. A well function immune system needs iron,where it functions as a growth promoter for immune cells, however too much free (unbound iron) can act as a growth factor to pathogens.
Iron deficiency symptoms may start with a lack of concentration or motivation and may progress to general fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, fast or irregular heartbeat and tingling in the legs. Pica, craving for non food items (clay, coal, dirt, ice), is another symptom associated with lack of iron. Other signs are pale skin, brittle nails, pail nails, hair loss and a swollen or sore tongue.
Who is at risk of iron deficiency?
Small children tend to be more at risk, especially if their diet is centred on dairy, as calcium can interfere with absorption. Children and teenagers have increased iron needs due to growth. This is especially true for adolescent girls who are going through rapid growth and starting their periods, monthly bleeds further increase their demand for iron. Pregnant women need extra iron to sustain the increased blood production, they are growing another human being after all. Premenopausal women need more iron than men, the requirements even out after menopause. Anybody on proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers and those with chronic conditions such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis may have increased needs due to malabsorption.
What about vegans?
Vegans should take more care to ensure adequate iron intake, however well planned whole food diet will provide all the iron one needs. Vegan sources of iron include molasses, dried fruits, beans, lentils, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. There are however few factors that can interfere with the absorption of iron and should be considered when planning daily meals.
Tannins in tea and coffee are known and very considerable inhibitors of iron absorption. Tea can reduce the absorption by 65% and coffee depending on type anywhere from 30-60%. Calcium is another inhibitor however this applies mainly to high dairy intake, making this a non-issue for the vegan diet. Phytates and oxalates in plants are also known inhibitors. Soaking beans, lentils and grains reduces the phytate content, as does gently toasting your nuts and seeds. It has been also shown that cooking your grains with couple of slices of onion can increase the absorption of minerals. Vitamin C on the other hand is a potent enhancer of iron absorption.
Top iron tips
To ensure adequate intake of iron on a vegan diet make sure not to consume tea or coffee with your meals, leave it at least two hours before or after meal to have your cuppa. Have Vitamin C rich foods with your meals, a salad with lemon dressing, a portion of broccoli, a glass of orange juice will all do the job of increasing your iron absorption.
If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of iron deficiency, do ask your GP for a blood test to confirm this is the case. Anaemia that is not resolved with supplementing can be a sign of something more serious, therefore needs to be investigated. Supplementing without testing is never advised, as overload of iron can also be dangerous to our health. Excess iron has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, cancer, liver disease, diabetes mellitus and several other chronic disorders. Vegans tend to have lower ferritin, this may be one of the reasons why vegan diet is protective of many chronic diseases.
To sum it up
The take away message is: eat a varied diet, have vitamin C with your iron rich foods, minimise iron antagonists and make sure you seek help of a professional when experiencing any symptoms of iron deficiency.