As a personal trainer I’ve talked with many people and even seen clients struggle with iron-deficiency anemia after adopting a plant based diet. I’ve even had people describe to me how much better they felt eating this way until the issue of anemia arose and they were ‘forced’ to return to red meat. This can be really frustrating for these individuals, and certainly frustrates me upon hearing it – especially when their doctor’s only recommendations tend to be eating more red meat, or taking an iron supplement!
I try to steer anyone who asks about plant-based sources of iron towards the most iron dense foods (my favorite: beans & greens!), but to go into a little more detail here I referenced two of my favorite nutrition books: Nutrition Guide for Clinicians and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. Here’s the gist:
Iron-deficiency anemia occurs when the body’s stores of iron in the liver become depleted, and it no longer has enough iron to make all the red blood cells it needs for optimal oxygen distribution. Some common symptoms of anemia are fatigue, shortness of breath, and frequent bruising.
Anemia has a whole array of origins, only one of which is nutritional deficiency. The most common cause is actually menstruation in women (women of childbearing age have the highest rate of anemia), as this monthly loss of blood leads to depleted iron stores over time. Pregnancy also greatly increases the risk of anemia, as a woman’s iron needs roughly double during the term. Rapid growth, such as in infants and children, also increases the need for iron and the subsequent risk of deficiency. Other less common causes of anemia are problems that cause internal bleeding such as ulcers and cancers of the colon and esophagus.
Iron is one of those nutrients many people tend to think only exists in animal products (like vitamin B12, Calcium, and protein), but like these other nutrients, this is far from the case! Many plant foods are great sources of iron, especially leafy green vegetables and legumes (beans & greens)! There is also iron in whole grains, and many grain products are fortified with iron as well. The iron present in animal products is called heme iron (meaning it is in the same form as in our bodies, because it is in the tissue and residual blood of the animal being eaten) which is absorbed at a flat rate of about 25%. Iron from plant-foods is called non-heme iron, and can be absorbed at a wide variety of rates depending on the needs of your body and conditions with which it is eaten. If you are in need of iron and eat iron containing foods (beans & greens!) along with foods that promote iron absorption, such as fruit, you will have an excellent rate of absorption.
The take home message on iron/anemia:
Great sources of iron
- Beans, lentils, and legumes
- Dark leafy green vegetables
- Dried fruit (dates, prunes, raisins)
- Barbells and Dumbbells!
Nutrients that improve iron absorption
- Vitamin C and organic acids (found in fruits and vegetables, citrus, and vinegar)
- Vitamin A and Carrotenoids (found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables)
Foods that reduce iron absorption
- Dairy Products (milk, cream, yogurt, cheese, etc)
- Tea, coffee and cocoa (when consumed with the iron-containing meal)
An Iron-packed and highly absorbable meal example: Salad! Spinach with raisins, tomatoes, mandarin oranges, chickpeas, shredded carrot, and a vinaigrette dressing. Mmmmmm….