A plant-based diet has long been praised for its health benefits. Research has even shown that vegetarians tend to live longer because they have lower blood pressure and an overall lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. While a plant-based diet is undoubtedly good for your health, one concern for vegans and vegetarians is getting enough iron. Can you get enough iron without animal sources? Are plant-based iron sources as good as iron sourced from animals? Let’s take a closer look.
What Does Iron Do in the Body?
Iron is an essential mineral that transports oxygen all over the body. If you’re iron deficient, your body cannot make enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Men and non-menstruating women need 10 mg per day, while menstruating or nursing women need 15 mg, and pregnant women need 30 mg daily.
Heme Versus Non-Heme Iron
Meat, especially red meat, is the best source of heme-iron because you’re directly consuming animal blood proteins (hemoglobin and myoglobin). This means it’s more easily absorbed in the body. Because it’s so easily absorbed, it’s the best source for those who are iron deficient. In all, 7 to 35 percent of iron from animal sources is absorbed.
Non-heme sources of iron are plant-based and include legumes, nuts, and vegetables. Non-heme sources also include iron that’s used to fortify foods like cereal and oatmeal as well as iron found in supplements. This type of iron has to be converted to a usable form in the body, and as a result the body only absorbs between 2 and 20 percent of iron from plant-based sources.
Factors That Affect Iron Absorption
The concern is not solely about the amount of iron that a person consumes, it’s about ensuring that the body is properly absorbing that iron. Iron absorption is affected by a number of different factors, and that’s why the range of absorption is so wide. For starters, if you’re iron deficient your body is more likely to absorb more. But this absorption tapers off as the body gets enough iron.
Diet can also affect absorption. Ascorbic acid or vitamin C found in foods like kiwi, mango, papaya, and pineapple can improve the body’s absorption of iron. Surprisingly, the moderate consumption of alcohol–one drink for women and two for men in a sitting–can also positively affect the body’s absorption of iron.
Certain foods can hinder the body’s ability to absorb iron. For those with healthy levels of iron, this shouldn’t be a concern, but if you’re deficient, it may be worth investigating. Calcium, found in dairy, tofu, sardines, and certain vegetables, can inhibit absorption. Additionally, phosphoprotein, a compound found in eggs, binds to iron proteins and can hinder its absorption in the body. And finally, oxalates found in chocolate, tea, and wheat bran have also been shown to negatively affect iron absorption.
Heme and Non-Heme Sources of Iron
Heme iron is found in a number of animal sources, most abundantly in beef liver, ground beef, ground chuck, chicken liver, clams, and oysters. Non-heme iron is found in a wide variety of foods, but the most potent sources include fortified oatmeal, lentils, kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, navy beans, lima beans, and black strap molasses.
How to Get Enough Iron on a Vegetarian Diet
Just because you’re a vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean you have to fret about getting enough iron. Although non-heme iron isn’t absorbed as easily as heme iron, it’s present in so many foods that if you eat a balanced diet, you can easily get enough iron to avoid deficiency. This, combined with foods that are rich in vitamin C to aid absorption, will keep you strong and healthy. If your levels are low you may want to avoid foods that can hinder absorption, such as dairy, eggs, tea, coffee, and chocolate.
If you’re concerned about iron deficiency, talk to your healthcare provider about getting your levels tested. But just because you’re an exclusive veg-eater doesn’t mean you’re deficient. Eating a balanced diet full of healthy iron sources does a body good, whether you’re a plant eater or a meat eater.