Iron is an essential mineral that plays a number of different roles in the human body. In particular, iron is essential for making haemoglobin which is a protein contained in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. Iron also plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy immune system (your body’s natural defence system – so I think you can agree it is pretty essential!). Iron deficiency is among the most common deficiencies, and it is a common misconception that it is not possible to get this essential mineral from a plant based diet. This is simply not true, and there are many different plant based sources of iron.
The average adult male needs about 8.7mg of iron per day, and the average adult female needs about 14.8mg of iron per day. I’m naturally very pale, and pretty much every time I go to the doctor the ask me about my iron levels – my levels have always been fine but it does make me consider trying out fake tan!
Plant-based sources of iron include: pulses and legumes (such as beans, peas, and lentils); dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, cabbage, and broccoli); tofu; nuts; and seeds. The preparation of these plant based sources of iron can increase iron absorption. For example, cooking, soaking nuts and seeds and using sprouted seeds and grains are all good ways of enhancing iron absorption. If you don’t know where to start with sprouting seeds, have a look into buying a germinator. They are great and so easy to use – although be cautious, seeds are best done in these, we once tried doing it with chickpeas and they just went mouldy!
Vitamin C may also enhance the absorption of iron, so in addition to the health promoting benefits of vitamin C (it is a strong antioxidant), make sure you are eating plenty of foods rich in vitamin C to aid in iron absorption. Broccoli is a double whammy, as it contains both iron and vitamin C!
Not only is it possible to get enough iron on a plant based diet, there is evidence to suggest that plants are a healthier source or iron than animal products. Iron from animal sources is called heme iron, and iron from plants is called non-heme iron. One study found that heme iron–but not non-heme iron–was associated with an increased risk of stroke, as well as diabetes. Higher heme iron intake was associated with greater risk for type 2 diabetes, but not total or non-heme iron. Not only stroke and diabetes, but the evidence suggested that higher heme iron intake was associated with an increased risk of cancer. I would say these are pretty compelling arguments to eat your broccoli to get your iron!
It is, however, essential to get enough iron in your diet. Eating plenty of iron rich foods alongside sources of vitamin C will help ensure that you do not become iron deficient. It is also important to ensure you give your body the best chance of absorbing the iron from your diet (unfortunately non-heme iron is more difficult for the body to absorb), and tea and coffee can make it harder for your body to absorb iron. Luckily, I’m not saying that we need to avoid our favourite hot beverages altogether – just that we should avoid drinking them with our meals to give our bodies the chance to make the most of the iron we are getting from our plant based diets!