Iron is vital to our health and survival because it sits in the centre of the oxygen-carrying molecule – haemoglobin – in our red blood cells. It’s thanks to iron that red blood cells are able to absorb oxygen in the lungs and carry it to all our cells and tissues.
There are similar molecules in our muscles – called myoglobins – that help to distribute oxygen in them. Myoglobin needs iron as much as haemoglobin so it’s crucial that we provide a steady supply through our diet.
The tale of two irons
Iron is a mineral but the way animals and plants use and store it creates different iron compounds. The main two forms are haem iron and non-haem iron.
- Haem iron is found only in meat. It’s because animal muscles contain both haemoglobin and myoglobin so iron is bound there in its haem form. Around 40 percent of the iron content of meat and fish is haem iron and we absorb about 15-35 percent of iron from this form (Saunders et al., 2013). The problem is that our bodies absorb haem iron and store it whether we need it or not. That means that iron can accumulate in the body and potentially cause damage. Excess haem iron stimulates the production of free radicals – compounds that can damage your DNA and other molecules – and may increase your risk of colon cancer (Bastide et al., 2011). High haem iron intake also increases your risk of heart disease by up to 46 percent (Yang et al., 2014).
- Non-haem iron is found in meat, dairy and eggs, and is the only type of iron in plants. We absorb a bit less iron from it compared to haem-iron – around 5-12 percent (Hurrell and Egli, 2010) but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means that you can’t get too much iron from plant foods. You simply absorb as much iron as your body needs from plants and if your iron levels are low, your body switches gears and starts absorbing more. When you’re at risk of deficiency, your body increases iron absorption up to 10-fold (Saunders et al., 2013, Zieli?ska-Dawidziak, 2015)! And the same happens in pregnancy. It’s pretty amazing! Plus there are ways to increase our non-haem iron absorption but more on that below.
How much do we need?
The amount of iron you need daily is 8.7 milligrams for men and women over 50, and 14.8 milligrams for women under 50 (this accounts for menstrual blood losses).
If you’re curious how would you be able to tell if you were iron deficient, don’t worry, you’d know. Iron deficiency limits oxygen supply to your cells resulting in weakness, fatigue, compromised immune system, shortness of breath, sensitivity to cold, and even heart palpitations.
Because iron from plants is slightly less bioavailable, some experts recommend we multiply the recommended intake by 1.8 (Sobiecki et al., 2016). On the other hand, the recommended intake amounts already account for the fact that we don’t absorb all the iron we eat. At the moment, there’s no consensus on the issue.
What experts do agree on is that our daily iron intake from both foods and supplements should not exceed 45 milligrams – intakes higher than that can be health-damaging (Zieli?ska-Dawidziak, 2015).
Where do we find it?
Plenty of plant foods are rich in iron. The table below lists the best sources.
Many countries adopted the policy of fortifying wheat flour (used for bread and other bakery items) and breakfast cereal products with iron – this is the case in the UK, USA, Australia, most of Central and South American countries, some European, Asian and African countries, and many Middle Eastern countries. Check the packaging to find out how much iron your favourite product contains! These policies were put in place in order to prevent iron-deficiency anaemia and have been hugely successful. It only goes to show that meat-based diets are not sufficient to prevent low iron intakes.
If you’re healthy and eat a variety of iron-rich foods on a daily basis, it should comfortably cover your iron needs.
However, there are situations when you may need to boost your iron levels – if you suffer substantial blood loss, have a condition that affects your iron absorption (such as Crohn’s disease), follow a limited diet, or when you have iron deficiency. In those cases, a supplement is advisable and in our experience these are the best.
What we recommend
It’s safe to say we’ve tried many different types of multivitamins from various brands. We can personally recommend this multivitamin from wearefeel
If you are concerned about your iron levels, we recommend getting this Iron Test from affordable home health check provider letsgetchecked
Ferritin in plants
Ferritin is the storage form or iron. When you have blood tests to measure your iron levels, they measure the ferritin content in your blood.
Some plant foods contain ferritin and because we absorb it really well, they are great iron sources. These ferritin-rich foods include soya (edamame, tofu), chickpeas, lentils, peas, beans and lupins (Zieli?ska-Dawidziak, 2015).
Meat is not such a significant source of iron as many people think. Less than 20 percent of iron in meat-eaters’ diets actually comes from meat (Saunders et al., 2013). Meat-eaters and plant-eaters alike get most of their iron from plant foods so the myth that we need meat for iron simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
A recent review showed that although vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower iron levels, they are not deficient – and these lower-but-sufficient iron levels may be advantageous for health reasons (Haider et al., 2018). The authors concluded we should simply make sure to eat plant sources of iron but not meat!
Studies analyzing vegan diets and nutrient intakes across different populations consistently bring the same results – vegans have more than sufficient iron intakes and in some of these studies, vegan diets provided even more iron than all the other diets. The studied populations included Finland (Elorinne et al., 2016), Denmark (Kristensen et al., 2015), Germany (Nebl et al., 2019), France (Alles et al., 2017), Belgium (Clarys et al., 2014), Europe and USA (Rizzo et al., 2013; Segovia-Siapco and Sabate, 2019).
Boost your iron absorption
Plant foods rich in iron also contain nutrients that either enhance or hinder iron absorption. The main inhibitor that some people worry about is phytate. It is a natural compound found in unrefined grains, seeds and pulses. Because it binds to iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, it can somewhat reduce their absorption.
There are ways to reduce the phytate content in foods and most of them are a natural part of preparing our meals anyway. Soaking pulses (beans, chickpeas, lentils) and discarding the water reduces phytate – when you buy these canned, it’s already been done for you! Sprouting and soaking wholegrains, nuts and seeds is another way of conquering phytate and so is fermenting and leavening – used in the making of tempeh and bread.
And let’s not forget cooking, making it possible for us to consume pulses and wholegrains – it’s another phytate-reducing method (Gupta et al., 2015). However, phytate is not all that bad so we shouldn’t be trying to get rid of absolutely all of it. It is a potent antioxidant and helps to protect our digestive tract.
The one nutrient that significantly enhances our iron absorption is vitamin C. It can increase the amount of iron we absorb three to six fold (Saunders et al., 2013). Remember this and try to always combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C foods – for example morning cereal with strawberries or orange, baked beans with fresh pepper, tofu with broccoli and fresh greens, nuts and seeds with kiwi fruit or berries.
A vegan diet provides plenty of iron in numerous staple foods. It’s important that we get enough iron, of course, but we don’t have to try too hard with so many iron sources. Vegans are not any more likely to suffer iron deficiency than meat-eaters so it’s time to put this myth to bed.
Make sure you eat the foods listed above on a regular basis and remember to combine them with vitamin C-rich foods – and you can’t go wrong!
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