Preventing Iron Deficiency In Vegetarians And Vegans
Iron is a nutrient that many people are misinformed of. There are many misconceptions about the best sources for iron, and how to address iron deficiency. Iron is incredibly important when it comes to women’s health, as women are most susceptible to become deficient or suffer from anemia. This mineral is found in every cell of the body and is crucial for many functions. Many believe that vegans and vegetarians cannot obtain all of the necessary iron from diet alone to be healthy. But is this really the case? This article is not just relevant for vegans and vegetarians, it applies to everyone!
Why Do Deficiencies Occur?
Iron can become low for several reasons. Many people get blood work done to test for iron and find that their levels are low. Then they supplement with iron and levels don’t return to normal. They wonder why their iron levels aren’t increasing, and perhaps they increase their dose, but still find no change. Iron needs other nutrients to help absorb and assimilate it so that blood iron levels can increase. These nutrients are vitamin C, B vitamins, vitamin B12, and Folate. It is imperative that these nutrients are consumed in adequate amounts along with iron, to ensure adequate iron absorption.
Even meat eaters suffer from iron deficiency and it can be attributed to a lack of consumption of whole fruits and vegetables that are rich in the other nutrients needed for vitamin absorption. Consuming a wide variety of whole plant foods including fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, beans, lentils, soy (organic and non-gmo), nuts, and seeds, will help to ensure that you are consuming enough vitamin C and B vitamins to ensure iron absorption.
Iron Rich Foods
- leafy greens, including spinach, kale, chard, collards
- lentils, beans, and peas
- soybeans, tofu, and tempeh (organic and non-gmo is best)
- seeds, especially pumpkin, sesame, hemp, and flax
- nuts, especially pine nuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, and almonds
- grains such as oats and quinoa
- potatoes (potato skin contains high levels of iron, so eat the skin!)
- dark chocolate (unprocessed, raw, organic is best)
- black strap molasses
Vitamin C Rich Foods
- Bell Peppers
B Vitamin Rich Foods
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Green peas
- Green leafy vegetables
Eating a wide variety of these fruits and vegetables will help to ensure proper and adequate absorption of iron.
It is typically not possible to get all of your daily requirements of vitamin B12 as a vegan, so I certainly suggest supplementation with the methylcobalamin form of B12 to avoid iron deficiency. This is my favourite!
There are several different types of anemia. For example anemia can occur when the number of red blood cells is low, or when the amount of hemoglobin they carry is low. Vitamin B12 and folic acid are used by the bone marrow to make red blood cells, and a deficiency in one or both of these nutrients can cause pernicious anemia.
Who Is Prone To Anemia?
- Women in general are more susceptible than men due to blood loss during menstruation, and also due to pregnancy or breastfeeding
- Those who take aspirin regularly
- People who are very physically active
- The elderly
- Those with poor digestive systems can have a hard time absorbing iron from food
Symptoms Of Anemia or Low Iron
- shortness of breath
- poor concentration
- peeling finger nails
- pale skin
- chest pains
- hair loss
- cracks at the side of the mouth
- “spoon-like” fingernails
- sleep disruption
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms and you are concerned about iron deficiency or anemia, seek medical testing, and if possible test iron, vitamin C, vitamin B12, folate, hemoglobin, and ferritin levels.
I always suggest a healthy diet to correct nutritional deficiencies, but if you are still having a hard time obtaining iron from your diet, supplementation may be beneficial. Everybody requires different dosage levels, so consult your medical doctor for advice and follow the dosage on the label. Men need less iron than women since women lose blood during menstruation. Pregnancy and breastfeeding also influences iron requirements.
Iron is not to be taken long term, as over consumption of iron can be toxic. It is best to take iron when testing shows you are deficient. I typically recommend women take some iron during menstruation. I recommend natural supplements only. Some iron supplements tend to cause constipation, but there are many natural brands that carry non-constipating formulas. Lastly, I suggest taking an iron that contains other vitamins such as C, B12, and Folic Acid. I personally really like Garden Of Life Liquid Plant Iron and New Chapter Iron.
There are other factors that can contribute to low iron. Consider the following ensure maximum iron absorption and retention:
- Alcohol, coffee, tobacco, and birth control pills inhibit vitamin B12 absorption, which can lead to low iron levels.
- Poor digestion can result in poor absorption of iron and other critical nutrients. Addressing digestive issues by taking probiotics, reducing stress, minimizing pharmaceutical drug intake (when possible) and more, helps with overall nutrient absorption.
- Women who experience heavy bleeding due to menstruation often suffer from lower than optimal iron levels. Addressing menstrual health by balancing hormones is critical for reducing iron loss. Women can balance hormones in several ways such as detoxifying the liver, avoiding xenoestrogens, seed cycling, and much more.
- Consuming antacids can inhibit iron absorption. If suffering from acid reflux, consider natural remedies such as baking soda and apple cider vinegar.
Nutritional Pathology, Brenda Lessard-Rhead, BSc, ND
Staying Healthy With Nutrition, Elson M Haas, MD