Optimizing Iron on a Plant-Based Diet
Iron is an essential mineral with numerous benefits to the body, yet many people around the world suffer from iron deficiency. If you opt for a meatless diet, it’s especially important to be mindful of how much iron you’re getting from plant foods.
Iron supports growth and development as well as hormone balance and energy metabolism. One of its most vital and well-known roles is in the production of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to other tissues like your skin and muscles. This is why iron deficiency can leave you pale, sluggish and easily fatigued.
What Foods Are High in Iron?
Iron is naturally found in both animal and plant foods, as well as fortified grain products here in Canada. Iron from animal sources, called heme iron, is much more easily absorbed by the body than the non-heme iron found in plant foods. Combining animal sources with plant sources can increase non-heme iron absorption.
Animal Sources of Iron (Heme):
Fish & seafood
Plant Sources of Iron (Non-Heme):
Legumes – beans, dried peas and lentils
Cooked green vegetables – spinach, asparagus, kale, beet greens and turnip greens
Fortified grain products – bread, cereal and pasta
Nuts & seeds – almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds
Dried fruits – apricots, raisins and prunes
How Much Iron Do I Need?
The amount of iron you need depends on your age and gender. Find out how much you need here.
Do Vegetarian Diets Lead to Iron Deficiency?
Cutting out meat will not necessarily lead to iron deficiency if you’re eating a well-planned vegetarian diet. If you are a woman with heavy menstrual periods, limiting your energy intake, or have a gastrointestinal disorder like Crohn’s, consult your doctor and dietitian to ensure you are getting enough iron. Vegetarians require almost twice the RDA of iron each day due to components of plant-based foods like phytates, vegetable proteins, calcium and tannins that inhibit iron absorption. To prevent deficiency, here are some tips to optimize your iron intake from plant foods:
Pair non-heme iron sources with vitamin C – add cooked spinach to pasta with tomato sauce or top your morning oatmeal with fruits like orange, strawberries or kiwi
Cook veggies and soups with legumes in cast-iron pots, which leak elemental iron into your meals
Avoid drinking coffee, tea, red wine or milk with non-heme iron as these drinks can limit iron absorption
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