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Can you get enough iron from plants?

Iron plays important role in normal function of immune system, and tiredness and fatigue reduction. Can you get enough Iron from plant based diet?

Iron is key to healthy immune system. Low levels of iron can also lead to anaemia, characterised by weakness, fatigue and low energy level. According to NHS women aged 19-50 need 14.8mg of iron per day, while older women, and men over 18 should consume 8.7mg per day. The increased daily requirement applies also to adolescent girls 11-18 years old. This disproportion means that young and middle age women are especially at risk of iron defficiency.

The first iron sources mentioned on NHS website are liver and red meat. According to the Association of UK Dietitians (BDA), beef, lamb and pork are most easily absorbed iron sources. This is because animal-based iron is easier absorbed than the plant-based one.

Vegans can also obtain iron from eating beans, chickpeas, nuts, dried fruit and fortified cereals. Good vegan sources of iron are leafy vegetables. The richest vegan sources of iron listed by the BDA are sesame seeds and sunflower seeds (respectively 10.4 and 6.4mg per 100g). Another good source are dried figs and apricots (respectively 3.9 and 3.4mg per 100g). 

The vegan iron sources from the top of the BDA list are quite calorie, fat and carbs heavy. For example, the amount of sunflower seeds required to fulfil the daily iron requirement for young woman provides over 1300 calories (general calorie intake for women recommended by NHS is 2000 calories). Getting the same amount of iron from beef (rump steak) would require eating 514 calories. This example illustrates that fulfilling daily iron need from balanced vegan diet may be sometimes tricky and require either good planning, or supplementation.

But we cannot look only at the iron amount at the product labels. How we prepare our food and how we combine meals can impact our absorption levels:

  • Even if you consume enough iron, some food and drink can prevent your body from properly absorbing it. Many people know that coffee and tea can have this effect, but its lesser known that wholegrain cereals and other food high in physic acid may also reduce iron absorption. This is especially interesting as the cereals are often fortified with iron.
  • The BDA explains that iron present in animal products helps with plant-based iron absorption. This means that eating only vegan products, even rich in iron, we will absorb less of this mineral than if we ate some animal products with it.
  • On the other hand, cooking and soaking nuts and seeds, or letting seeds and grains to sprout can increase absorption of the iron they contain.
  • Some studies show that vitamin C may help to increase iron absorption. Also consumption of enough vitamin B2 is important to support normal metabolism of iron.

Eating vegan does not mean we have to be at risk of iron deficiency. There are definitely plenty of tasty vegan iron sources. Being mindful about those sources and trying add them to every meal is the first good step. Knowing how to prepare and combine food is also important. The real challenge may start when we combine our iron requirements with other diet goals like reducing calories, eliminating gluten etc. Plus, in todays fast paced world taking time to plan your meals and prepare them is not always easy. In all those cases, vegan supplementation may be the most effective and reliable way of assuring right balance of all the vitamins and minerals needed.

Discover more ways to keep your vegan diet healthy with WeVegan Multivitamin, a premium one-per-day supplement for vegan and low meat diets in eco-friendly packaging.

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