We all know that iron, like all minerals, is important for our health. But what’s so special about it?
Iron is an essential micronutrient that is part of hemoglobin, that thing in our red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from our cells. Iron is also needed for a healthy metabolism, and is a component of muscle protein. Pretty important stuff!
Iron deficiency is prevalent worldwide and, according to the American Dietetic Association, is the most common nutritional deficiency in the US. If untreated, iron deficiency – a risk factor for anemia, or a decrease in the amount of red blood cells – can lead to symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, and a reduced attention span.*
It’s a common misconception that vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk for iron deficiency by default. In fact, this article cites two studies stating that the incidence of iron deficiency isn’t higher among vegans and vegetarians than it is among meat eaters. While it’s true that the body doesn’t absorb and store iron from plant-based sources as efficiently as it does from meat, there are many vegetarian sources of iron, and plant-based eaters can get enough by following a well-varied and abundant diet.
Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron, while caffeine decreases it. To increase your absorption of iron while eating a meal, add a generous squeeze of lemon or drink a half cup of orange or grapefruit juice, and forgo caffeinated beverages (coffee, tea, soft drinks/soda) at least half an hour before eating. Even decaf tea should be avoided, as the tannins in tea and coffee also decrease iron absorption.
Did you know? Per calorie, kale has more iron than beef. Go veggies!
Here is a Pinnable graphic of the top 7 vegetarian sources of iron: dark and leafy green veggies like kale and spinach, dried beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, dried apricots, and fortified breads and cereals. Of course, there are more than just 7 vegetarian food sources that are rich in iron (soybeans and sweet potatoes are also great), but these foods pack the most punch.
For more information about iron in the vegan diet, check out this awesome article by Reed Mangels from The Vegetarian Resource Group. It even includes a sample menu for an iron rich diet!
* If you think you might be deficient in iron, see a doctor or dietitian for a full assessment and personalized recommendations.