Eating a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health, the environment, and the animals. But if you’re not careful about what you’re eating, it can be difficult to get enough iron from plants. Iron deficiency is common in vegetarians and vegans because non-heme iron sources are less bioavailable than heme iron (animal protein). Fortunately, there are lots of great plant-based options for getting your daily dose of iron.
What is iron?
Iron is a mineral that’s an essential component of red blood cells, where it transports oxygen throughout the body. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to other tissues in your body—so without iron, you can’t get enough oxygen throughout your body.
Iron is also needed to make some enzymes and proteins necessary for growth and development. It helps produce energy during cellular respiration (the process through which food is converted into energy). Iron also plays an important role in immune function; without adequate levels of this mineral, people may experience fatigue or impaired immune response to infections.
Where do we get iron?
Iron is one of the most important nutrients for maintaining good health, as it’s necessary for energy production and red blood cell formation. It’s also a component of many proteins and enzymes.
The best way to get your daily iron intake is from animal sources, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, lentils, and tofu. But if you’re eating a plant-based diet—or just want to reduce your intake of animal products—it can be tricky to get enough iron without resorting to supplements or fortified foods that provide extra amounts in one sitting (which may not be enough long term).
But don’t worry! There are plenty of vegan foods that naturally contain iron—and some even have more than their meat-filled counterparts because they’re less processed. The key is knowing which ones have the highest concentration per serving size so you can easily add them to your diet every day by eating these tasty treats.
Why is iron important?
Iron is a mineral that is essential for oxygen transport in the body. It’s also a key component of many proteins and enzymes, including myoglobin and cytochromes. Iron is needed for the formation of red blood cells and hemoglobin, which carry oxygen throughout your body.
Iron helps form the primary substance of our blood (hemoglobin) as well as other proteins involved in transporting oxygen through our bodies. This means iron plays an important role in many bodily functions, such as growth and development, reproduction, immunity, brain function (including learning), heart health—and even how we respond to stress.
What happens when deficiency of iron?
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting more than 2 billion people worldwide. When you’re deficient in iron, your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body. This can make you feel tired and weak, or even cause flu-like symptoms. It also affects your ability to concentrate and recover after exercise.
The symptoms of iron deficiency include feeling tired and weak, dizziness, headache, pale skin, hair loss, brittle nails, and low blood pressure. Iron deficiency can be caused by many things including heavy periods; frequent and heavy menstrual bleeding; menopause; pregnancy; rapid weight loss; blood donation and chronic illnesses such as cancer or HIV/AIDS.
Iron deficiency anemia leads to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes because it reduces the ability of blood vessels to widen (dilate). The lack of blood flow through narrowed blood vessels puts extra pressure on them which can lead to damage over time due to high blood pressure (hypertension).
Plant based iron
Spinach is a top source of iron, and one cup contains 5.5 milligrams of the mineral. It’s also packed with vitamin C and other antioxidants, which are known to help fight free radicals that can damage cells and lead to health problems such as cancer. Iron helps your blood produce red blood cells that carry oxygen through your body. So if you’re looking for an easy way to boost your health and energy levels, start by adding more spinach into your diet.
Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are wonderful supplements of iron. These legumes pack in almost 10 percent of your daily recommended intake for iron per half-cup serving (about 130 grams). Chickpeas also contain an impressive amount of protein and fiber per serving. The healthy carbs help keep you full longer so you don’t get hungrier before your next meal, while the fiber helps keep blood sugar levels steady and may potentially lower cholesterol levels. In addition to being rich in protein and dietary fiber, chickpeas are an excellent supplement of folate—a B vitamin known for its role in reducing birth defects when pregnant women consume enough during their first trimester—and manganese, which is essential for bone growth (which means it can be especially helpful if you have osteoporosis).
Tofu is a good supplement of iron, which plays an essential role in forming red blood cells. It is high in protein and low in fat, making it an excellent choice for those who are looking to avoid animal products or who have a preference for low-calorie foods. Tofu is also versatile and easy to make at home! This versatile ingredient can be used as an alternative to meat or dairy products (try adding some into your next smoothie) and can be baked, fried, sautéed, or roasted for added flavor. Be sure to look out for tofu made from organic soybeans because some varieties may contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Lentils are a good supplement of iron, with 1 cup of cooked lentils providing 6.3 milligrams. You need 8 milligrams of iron daily for women and 11 milligrams for men, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Iron is an essential mineral that your body uses to make hemoglobin and myoglobin, which carry oxygen in your blood and muscles respectively.
Folate is another important nutrient found in lentils—one cup contains 340 percent more folate than you need each day. This B vitamin is necessary for cell growth, which means it plays a role in heart health by helping keep arteries healthy as well as preventing birth defects like spina bifida during pregnancy.
If you’re looking for a vegan source of iron, cannellini beans are a great choice. They’re not too high in calories or fat, and they have a good amount of protein, fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals. Iron from plant sources is harder for your body to absorb than the kind in meat. But cannellini beans have compounds called phytates that help with this absorption process by making it easier for your body to get what it needs out of them while leaving behind some of the phytate content that might otherwise cause digestive issues.
Cannellini beans are also an excellent supplement of magnesium (79% DV per serving), vitamin B1 (63% DV), zinc (56% DV), and folate (60%).
Potatoes are a nutrient-rich food that contains many essential nutrients, including potassium, fiber, and vitamins C and B6. A medium-sized potato (about six ounces) contains about 1.4 milligrams of iron—not enough to meet the daily recommended amount for adults, but still significant because it can be part of a varied diet that includes other plant sources of iron like beans and spinach. Potatoes also contain phytonutrients called acrylamides which have been shown in animal studies to reduce cancer risk when combined with other healthy lifestyle choices like exercise and eating plenty of fruits, nuts, and vegetables throughout the day.
Edamame is an excellent origin of iron. A ½ cup serving contains 3.2 milligrams or about 20 percent of your daily value of iron. If you’re eating edamame as part of a vegan diet, this is good news because it also contains many other nutrients that are important to vegans and vegetarians alike: protein, magnesium, fiber, and vitamin K.
Cashews are iron rich dry fruit, but that doesn’t mean you should eat the entire bag. They are high in calories, fat, and protein. They also contain carbohydrates and fiber.
If you want to reap the benefits of cashews while avoiding weight gain, then stick with a few ounces a day as part of your balanced diet.
Some other vegan items that are helpful for iron absorption like – pumpkin seeds, apricots, and broccoli.
We can all agree that iron is an important nutrient. However, some people, especially vegans are at higher risk of developing iron deficiency than others. Women with heavy menstrual cycles, vegetarians (including vegans), athletes, and children are most likely to develop iron deficiency. If you fall into one or more of these categories, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough iron in your diet by eating foods rich in this essential mineral.