In a previous article, we discussed the various ways in which iron affects your body and your overall health. Briefly mentioned, was the fact that there are animal and plant based types of iron, which is a critical distinction for vegetarians and vegans looking to boost their iron absorption. For vegans, finding adequate sources of non-haem iron is useful. Even more useful than the sources themselves is the ability to increase the power of absorption by utilizing some of the following tools.
As a refresher, haem sources of iron make up 40% of the iron in meat and is absorbed well by the body. Non-haem sources make up about 60% of meat and 100% of all plant sources of iron. This type, however, is not absorbed as well by the body. Therefore, people who rely on this source for their iron (e.g. vegans) need to take extra precautions in order to boost the rate of absorption.
Some examples of non-haem iron sources are spinach, Swiss chard, sea vegetables, legumes, pumpkin, flaxseeds, quinoa, molasses, tomato paste, etc. Remember that the recommended amount for iron is dependent on a number of factors including gender, age, vegan status, etc. Creating a diverse menu and diet in general will ensure that you get both proper iron as well as iron absorbent food sources.
Haem and non-haem types of iron are actually absorbed slightly differently. Both are ultimately absorbed in the intestine, however via different pathways. Haem iron is absorbed regardless of other factors. Non-haem iron, on the other hand, is absorbed dependent on the amount of iron already present in the body (iron status) as well as other foods that are eaten in conjunction within one’s diet. As you can see, this means that vegans and those who rely on non-haem sources, need to carefully select iron enhancing food items that contribute to the absorption in their body.
Vitamin C is an excellent nutrient that works to boost the impact of iron. Some sources of Vitamin C are broccoli, cantaloupe, grapefruit, guava, kiwi, mango, oranges, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, and Brussels sprouts.
The presence of stomach acid can also increase the absorption of iron, so do not overuse antacids and things of that nature if you can help it.
Foods that belong to the dairy category often can inhibit the effects of iron. Therefore, lacto-vegetarians must be mindful of the amounts of dairy products that they consume in their diet. Here is where vegans may have a leg up on vegetarians, as they do not have to deal with this additional inhibitor.
Whole grains and legumes also contain a substance called phytates, which work to inhibit the benefits of iron. They actually bind onto the iron, which results in the prevention of its absorption. For this reason, vegetarians who consume a primarily whole grain and legume based diet, may want to take action to increase their iron absorption in other ways. Vitamin C, especially, works specifically to break this bond between phytate and iron, allowing your body to absorb it properly.
Tannins are another source, found in teas and red wine, that block the absorption of non-haem iron in particular. This does not mean that these elements must be eliminated from your diet all together. Rather, some research suggests eating these at different times of your iron consumption, so not to block the iron directly.
Phosphate that is found in soda is another inhibitor of iron absorption, which gives you yet another reason not consume soda, whether it is regular or diet.
Some research shows that due to the nature of the vegetarian and vegan diets, members of these groups need to consume more of the recommended amount of Vitamin C and other nutrients that support iron absorption. The idea here is that iron a focus on iron absorption may be even more important than straight iron consumption. Another suggestion is to consume both the iron enhancing nutrients and iron at the same exact time. Therefore, iron supplements, which are released slower in the body, are not recommended as much as the natural plant sources themselves. It is also important to note that Vitamin C sources are best consumed close to raw, as heat affects the nutrient, so keep in mind as you are preparing this source.
Diversity is key. Try and eat a variety of legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables in order to get the best iron sources as well as the optimum iron absorption.
Overall, when trying to get the most out of any nutrient, it is important to look at the big picture of your diet as a whole. Are you seeking that nutrient in a variety of different sources or are you recycling the same few foods? Balance, in general, is a good start to ensuring that you are getting the most out of your diet and iron sources. Now of days, with the consumer market being more cognizant of vegan needs, you should have no problem achieving this balance in order to up your iron intake and absorption.