I’m handing this post over today to one of my favourite people on Earth: Katie 180. She cuts though the bullshit you find about nutrition and gives you the straight-up facts. With a side of hilarious. She is a qualified nutritionist with an advanced diploma of nutritional medicine, and therefore is much more well-placed to dispense health information than I am! I’ve been reading about iron for a long time, and have asked her to come here today to give us all what we need to know in a nutshell.
Hello Vegetarians and Veggie-curious folk! Today I’m visiting Veggie Mama to have a wee chatty about the mineral iron.
Meeting your iron needs is a common concern around a non-meat-eating diet.
Forms of iron:
When we consider dietary iron there are two forms: haeme (heme) and non-haeme (non-heme), perhaps for the purposes of spellcheck I’ll just go ahead and use the American spelling eh? We know Veggie Mama likes the USA so I’m sure she won’t mind.
Iron is a trace nutrient, which means that we only need small amounts of it ~ in fact only about 10% of dietary iron is absorbed leaving 90% to be excreted! But this is a good and protective thing, as too much iron actually contributes to disease as it stores in tissues with no way of getting out except for blood loss.
Heme Iron: is bound to protein in animal tissue and is cleaved (removed from the protein portion) within the small intestine. Heme iron remains soluble (can pass easily between the digestive tract and blood stream) during digestion, which is what makes it more readily bio-available.
Approximately 55 – 60% of the iron in animal foods is heme iron and the remaining 40 – 45% is non-heme iron.
Non-heme Iron: comprises the total iron of all plant foods and it is bound to components (phytates, oxalates) of the plants that make it less easily absorbed, but this does not mean that a diet based on plant foods is unable to provide your iron needs.
In fact, individuals with insufficient digestive secretions, enzymes and co-factors which are required for the breakdown and absorption of heme iron can experience impaired iron absorption and subsequent iron deficiency even if they eat a diet rich in animal foods.
Factors that enhance the absorption of iron.
Inadequate or low iron status and likewise periods of rapid growth such as pregnancy ~ the body will ensure it absorbs more iron from the diet to accommodate.
Intake of animal sources of iron.
Sufficient gastric acids.
Factors that inhibit the absorption of iron.
Adequate or high iron status ~ yes the body will only store what it needs.
Phytates in whole grains.
Oxalates in dark green leafy veg, tea and chocolate.
Polyphenols in tea and coffee.
Malabsorption such as experienced in celiac disease, Chron’s disease, leaky gut, intestinal parasites so on and so forth.
Overuse of antacids.
Other minerals such as calcium, zinc and manganese – but really only in supplemental form (or diets that are abundant in dairy.)
Functions of iron:
Oxygen transport ~ via the heme found in haemoglobin, myoglobin and cytochromes found inside the energy producing parts of all cells.
- Haemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells, that binds oxygen molecules for transport in the blood.
- Myoglobin is a protein found in muscle tissue, which also binds oxygen and is called upon during exercise.
- Cytochromes are heme-containing molecules in the energy production chain located within all cells.
Immunity ~ iron participates as an anti-oxidant by comprising part of two enzymes: catalase and peroxidase; which break down hydrogen peroxide (baddie) into oxygen and water (goodies.)
Iron also performs as a pro-oxidant by increasing free radicals in order to destroy bacteria.
Growth and development ~ iron is involved in the synthesis of DNA.
Adequate daily intake of iron as recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC.)
Children and Adolescents
Both sexes 1 – 8 years old: 9 – 10mg/day.
Both sexes 9 – 13 years old: 8mg/day.
Boys 14 – 18 years old: 11mg/day.
Girls 14 – 18 years old: 15mg/day.
Women up to 50 years old: 18mg/day.
Women from 50 years old: 8mg/day.
Plant food with higher levels of iron and their iron content per 100g:
Spinach, raw: 2.7mg.
Kale, raw: 1.7mg.
Rocket, raw: 1.5mg.
Pumpkin seeds: 15mg.
Sunflower seeds: 5.2mg.
Dried apricots: 2.7mg.
Medjool dates: 0.9mg.
Parsley, raw: 6.2mg.
Almonds, raw: 3.7mg.
Walnuts, raw: 2.9mg.
Soybeans, cooked: 5.1mg.
Lentils, cooked: 3.3mg.
Chickpeas, cooked: 2.9mg.
Quinoa, cooked: 1.5mg.
Blackstrap molasses 1 tablespoon: 1.3mg.
Basically you’re looking at a diet abundant in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and dried fruit ~ nothing outrageously outside of a whole foods diet.
When you include foods rich in vitamin C you get the synergistic relationship between this acid and iron that increases its absorption. Nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains also provide the B-group vitamins B6 and B9; which are required for red blood cell and DNA synthesis.
Missing from the B-group vitamin line up however is B12, as this is only available in animal tissue, so supplementation with B12 is advisable in strict vegan diets.
Common early signs and symptoms of iron deficiency:
Fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin, inflammation and soreness of tongue (a ‘beefy’ looking tongue), dizziness or lightheadedness, cold hands and feet, tingling in the extremities, brittle hair and nails, rapid heart beat, weakened immunity, easy bruising and bleeding.
If you are thinking of making the lifestyle change to a vegetarian/vegan diet or if you are a long-time vegetarian/vegan I would advise a visit to your GP for an iron studies test, firstly to have a reference point for future tests and secondly, to assess current iron levels so as to navigate your diet with education and confidence.
Should iron be low and supplementation required, be mindful that not all iron supplements are created equally and I recommend visiting a qualified natural therapist for a practitioner-only iron formula with synergistic co-factor nutrients to maximise your iron supplementation and avoid unpleasant side effects of some over the counter iron supplements, such as constipation and black, tarry stools.
Go forth and eat well, Katie, x