It’s one of the things vegans hear all the time; people assume you are missing out on crucial vitamins and minerals that you can only get from animal produce. A whole industry of dietary supplements has been built up to address the fear that by moving to a plant-based diet, we will be leaving ourselves vulnerable to a range of health problems caused by deficiencies. This series takes those tired old stereotypes about vegan nutrient deficiencies and cracks them open to look at the true risk of deficiency and identify simple solutions.
The Irony of Iron Myths
We are going to start with one of the most common vegan deficiency myths – iron. Iron deficiency is a common deficiency, especially among women of child-bearing age. It can have serious consequences; mild deficiency can result in fatigue and poor healing, and severe deficiency, or iron deficiency anaemia, may cause extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and can even impact heart function. It’s a serious issue, and yet many people still hold beliefs about iron intake and deficiency that are based on old, outdated notions of what iron is and where it comes from.
There are many people who believe that the only sources of dietary iron come from animal produce. So, it is pretty natural that many people worry that a vegan diet increases the risk of suffering from low iron. However, studies show that following a vegan lifestyle does not put a person at any higher risk of iron deficiency than the general population. So, if it has been established that vegans are no more likely to experience iron deficiency than anyone else, why do the old myths persist? A huge part of this is that people do not understand that iron alone is not the solution to iron deficiency.
Eating lots of iron-rich food, whether from animal products or vegan sources, is simply not enough. What’s the point of loading up on iron if your body cannot use half of it?! The absorption of iron is a complex business, and it is hugely impacted by how much vitamin C we eat. Vitamin C, when consumed with a meal, greatly increases the amount of iron absorbed by the body. On average, those following a plant-based diet incorporate many more vitamin-C-rich foods, so a higher percentage of the iron they consume is actually absorbed and put to use in the body. The good news is that so many of the iron-rich plants are also high in vitamin C, making it easier and simpler to boost your iron intake. Dark green leafy veg and citrus fruit added to a meal can make a big difference to how much iron the body can utilise.
Good levels of beta-carotene and vitamin A have also been shown to boost iron absorption; beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A by the body, and it is easy to find – simply look for yellow and orange colours and add some into your meal. Try carrot, sweet potatoes, squashes, peppers, apricots, peaches or cantaloupe for a boost of vitamin A that will have a knock-on effect on your iron absorption.
There may also be other elements at work here; many people find that adopting a vegan diet enables them to reduce the number of medications they take such as acid suppressants and indigestion remedies, which can inhibit iron absorption. Healing the gut and soothing the stomach can have an incredible impact on how much nutrition is absorbed by the body.
Iron-Rich Vegan Foods
Of course, choosing iron-rich foods is important for everyone. If those sources also give you a boost of vitamin C, then they are all the more valuable!
The top iron-rich foods when evaluated per 100 calories are all vegan
While haem (meat) sources of iron tend to be more easily absorbed, you can mitigate this by including vitamin C in the meal and simply consuming more mg of iron in each meal. Some of the best vegan sources of iron include:
“lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal” vegansociety.com
For those who are at risk of iron deficiency, say if you are a menstruating woman, a child or you have a history of poor iron absorption, there are lots of things you can do to boost your iron intake without compromising on a healthy vegan lifestyle. Take a look at the following iron-boosting diet hacks that make it easier (and more delicious) to keep your iron status looking good.
HIGH IRON ^^^^
Time your polyphenols right
These can inhibit iron absorption when consumed around the same time as a meal. So, avoiding foods containing polyphenols at mealtimes can help increase iron absorption. This means timing it right; try consuming tea, coffee and wine separately to your main daily meals.
Monitor your iron
Get familiar with food labels or use one of the many apps available to keep track of your iron intake. One of the best and most effective ways to increase your iron intake is to simply become familiar with which foods are iron-rich and how to make them delicious.
Dried apricots and figs are iron superheroes. They are high in iron and also deliver some vitamin C and vitamin A to help with absorption. And they taste amazing. Win-win. Nuts and seeds are another great source; cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, hempseed, linseed. In fact, this is all starting to sound like a delicious iron-boosting flapjack recipe…
If you are not iron-deficient, you do not need an iron supplement. For mild deficiencies, there are many vegan-friendly solutions out there, including natural blackstrap molasses and nutritional yeast. If you have a more severe deficiency, talk it over with your doctor and they can offer you a range of vegan-friendly supplement options for treating the deficiency; there is no need to compromise as most iron supplements are suitable for vegans.
So now you know how to refute the idea that all vegans must be iron deficient, and you know how to boost not only the iron in your diet but how much of it is absorbed by your body. Now we are off to taste-test some iron-boosting vegan flapjack recipes… Watch this space!