Any vegetarian will tell you how often they’re asked where they get their iron. In fact it used to be my most frequently asked question. Until very recently most of us believed to get enough from our diet we needed to eat meat, and if we were anaemic – it needed to be increased. There was no other way to do it, apart from taking a supplement. Rarely was absorption (increased or decreased) discussed as a possible issue. How far we have come.
The average vegetarian diet is able to supply twice the minimum daily requirements of iron—it also supplies the body with three times the daily requirement of vitamin C, needed for the iron to absorb. Studies of the iron content in food show that vegetables, fruit and nuts are much higher in usable iron than beef. So you see, you needn’t be a meat eater to get your iron.
The body is unable to manufacture iron therefore the body’s iron needs must be fully supplied by the food we eat.
There are two types of dietary iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found only in meat, fish and poultry, while non-heme iron is found mostly in fruits, vegetables, dried legumes and lentils, nuts and grains.
While iron is better absorbed from heme (meat) sources, the body can better regulate the absorption of non-heme (plant) iron, causing less damage to the body.
Many people think that only women suffer from an iron deficiency, and usually only after menstruation, and that the only symptom of a deficiency is fatigue. Iron is important for so many other reasons – digestion, immunity, growth and mental stability. Iron is also important in transporting oxygen in the blood and in the muscles.
Knowing what foods inhibit and aid iron absorption can help keep the body functioning efficiently.
- In general, you absorb 10-15% of the iron from foods.
- Vitamin C foods such as citrus fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, melons, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries improve the absorption of non-heme iron by as much as 85%.
- Substances like tannins, oxalates and polyphenols found in tea and coffee can reduce the absorption of non-heme iron by up to 65%. Peppermint tea, vervain, lime flower, chamomile and most other herbal teas contain polyphenols.
- Cocoa and cacao can inhibit iron absorption by up to 90 percent in the body.
- Black tea reduces absorption more than green tea and coffee.
- Calcium, polyphenols, and phytates found in legumes, whole grains, and chocolate can reduce absorption of non-heme iron.
- Oxalic acid found in spinach, kale, beets, nuts, chocolate, wheat bran, rhubarb, strawberries and herbs such as oregano, basil and parsley, are compounds that impair the absorption of non-heme iron.
- Eggs contain phosvitin, a protein compound that binds iron molecules together and prevents the body from absorbing iron from foods. According to the Iron Disorders Institute, one boiled egg can reduce iron absorption by as much as 28 percent.
- Cow’s milk can prevent your body from absorbing iron. Cow’s milk, and other foods high in calcium, are the only known substance to inhibit absorption of both non-heme and heme iron. One cup of cow’s milk contains approximately 300 mg of calcium. Calcium has little or no effect on iron absorption when less than 50 mg is ingested
- Phenolic acid can also be found in apples, peppermint and some herbal teas, spices, soy, walnuts, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. Try to avoid regularly consuming these foods two hours prior to, or following, your main iron-rich meal.
- According to the Iron Disorders Institute, phytates can reduce iron absorption from food by approximately 50 to 65 percent. Phytates can be found in tea and coffee, almonds, sesame, dried legumes and lentils, peas and whole grains. Even low levels of phytates have a strong inhibitory effect on your body’s ability to absorb iron from foods.
Why do we become deficient?
Iron deficiency anaemia occurs when red blood cells do not contain an adequate amount of iron due to pregnancy, blood loss, a diet low in iron or poor absorption of iron by the body. Apart from anaemia, most commonly a deficiency is due to a woman’s heavy periods, poor digestion, too much coffee and tea, a long-term illness, excessive exercise, heavy sweating, long-term use of antacids, cancer, candida, chronic herpes, Chrone’s disease and ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and parasites.
Symptoms of Deficiency
There is a long list of physical symptoms including –
- brittle bones
- brittle hair
- digestive trouble
- dry eyes
- dry skin
- feeling faint
- hair loss
- trouble swallowing
- irregular, very light or absent periods
- lower back pain
- mental slowness
- mouth ulcers and inflammation
- muscle spasms
- nails with long ridges or spoon-shaped nails
- night sweats
- pale complexion
- premature greying
- spots in your vision
- trembling arms or hands
- weak tendons
- weight gain
- Emotional symptoms include nervousness, depression, irritability and anxiety.
The Australian recommended daily allowances (RDA’s) are:
|Food||Per 100 g|
|Dulse, (sea vegetable)||50 mg|
|Clam, mussels, oysters||28mg|
|Sesame seeds||14.6 mg|
|Arame (Sea vegetable)||12 mg|
|Chick peas||6.2 mg|
|Spinach and silver beet||3.6mg|
|Pumpkin – 0.8mg|
As you can see it’s possible to get enough iron on a plant based diet. All it takes is a little knowledge and mindfulness.
Janella Purcell 2015