Why do we need iron?
For many non-vegans, meat is a synonym for iron. So it’s understandable that one of the most common questions vegans hear is related to food choices. Curiously, not everyone can explain exactly why iron is important, so let’s step back for a moment.
Iron is a mineral that makes hemoglobin (red blood cells), the protein responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. If our iron levels are low, we don’t have enough hemoglobin and, consequently, can’t get enough oxygen. This disruption can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, whose symptoms include dizziness, tiredness and headaches.
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. The former is obtained from animal-based products, and the latter can be found in plant-based foods. Because heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body, it’s been seen as better. Not true.
“While the non-heme iron in plant foods is absorbed somewhat differently — typically at a lower percentage — it turns out this manner of absorption is better suited to our needs,” says Vesanto Melina, MS, Registered Dietitian, on the website Becoming Vegan.
In other words, we absorb plant-based iron more efficiently when it’s needed and less efficiently when it’s not. As Melina explains, that’s good news because a surplus of iron is linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
According to the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), system of nutrition recommendations, women aged 19-50 should take 18 mg of iron daily; adult males, 8 mg. This group of women needs more iron because they lose blood during menstruation.
To ensure you’re keeping your ideal levels of iron while having a vegan diet, consume foods that are rich in this mineral, for example, beans of all kinds and tofu. Other great options are dark-green vegetables, quinoa, dried fruits, nuts and seeds.
Remember that vitamin C increases iron absorption, so some good combinations to boost your iron levels could be roasted pepper hummus, tofu stir-fry with broccoli, crispy roasted kale with lemon, oatmeal with ground flaxseed and a glass of orange juice, and lentil curry followed by kiwifruit.
Originally published by BC Vegan magazine.