Essential iron – from plants

photo of Vesanto Melina

by Vesanto Melina, Alessia Vaz & Sophia Jhajj

A common misconception holds that people on plant-based diets are more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia. In fact, it has been found that such people are no more prone to iron deficiency than their meat-eating counterparts. Continue reading for answers to some common questions about iron!

What is iron and why is it important?
Iron is fundamental for oxygen transport and plays an important role in the body’s metabolic and cognitive processes. It is present in food in two forms: non-heme and heme iron. Non-heme iron is found primarily in plant foods and eggs, while both non-heme and heme iron is found in meat. Ferritin, a blood cell protein, stores iron in the body and helps manage iron absorption. Our bodies are able to control the absorption of non-heme iron by taking up less when iron stores are full; however, it cannot regulate the absorption of heme iron, which means iron overload can occur.

What plant-based foods contain iron?
If you are moving towards or currently following a plant-based diet, it is important to eat a variety of foods to ensure adequate iron intake. Legumes including beans, peas, lentils and peanuts are great sources of iron. For example, lentils contain between 4.1mg and 4.9 mg per ¾ cup cooked. Dark green leafy vegetables like kale are also good sources of iron, as are other vegetables and fruits like potatoes, asparagus, peas, snow peas, tomatoes, raisins, and dried apricots. Oatmeal, soymilk, seeds, and certain nuts (cashews, almonds) are also good sources. You can boost iron intake by including iron-fortified cereals and meat alternatives in your diet.

How are iron stores affected in plant-based diets?
People following a plant-based diet tend to have lower ferritin levels than those eating meat – which recent research indicates may be advantageous. There is some evidence connecting lower ferritin to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, colon or other hormone-related cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Our bodies are readily able to increase iron absorption when iron stores are low. Despite this, recommendations for iron intake are 1.8 time higher for those on plant-based diets. However, this recommendation, based on a single 1991 study, is controversial, as plant-based diets are typically lower in absorption inhibitors and higher in absorption enhancers.

What impacts my iron absorption and how can I enhance it?
The amount of iron absorbed from plant foods varies greatly depending on your how much iron is already stored in your body and the composition of the meal. Some foods contain substances that inhibit the mineral’s absorption. Phytic acid (phytate), found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes can reduce iron absorption – although phytate has significant health benefits. If you are short on iron, don’t count on spinach and chard; oxalates present in those two vegetables reduce iron absorption. Similarly, try to reduce coffee, tea, and cocoa as they contain polyphenols that bind to iron, limiting absorption as well. On the other hand, foods rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, red bell pepper, and cabbage, eaten with foods containing non-heme iron, can increase iron absorption by up to 6 times. Other absorption enhancers include onions, garlic, foods rich in beta- carotene like carrots, and spices including pepper, turmeric, and ginger. Certain food preparation techniques like soaking, fermenting, yeasting, and sprouting can also enhance iron absorption as they degrade phytate inhibitors, reducing its presence in the food.

Including a diverse range of iron-rich plant-based foods helps ensure you achieve a healthy, energetic and active lifestyle!

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian and co-author of the award winning Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition and other books.  Alessia Vaz and Sophia Jhajj are 3rd year Dietetics Students at UBC.

Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Becoming Raw: The Essential Guide to Raw Vegan Diets
Food sources of iron
Iron and vegetarian diets. The Medical Journal of Australia


June 22 at 7pm come to the Snackluck & Iron Talk at Vancouver Cohousing with Vesanto Melina.

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