Iron is essential in the human diet as it plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy immune system and making haemoglobin; a protein contained in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. If the body is low in iron it can cause fatigue, brittle hair and nails, dry skin and heart palpitations. Iron deficiency is a major public health issue across the world, especially in menstruating and teenage females, and is important to be aware of in plant-based diets.
There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme. Plant foods contain 100% non heme iron which is less bioavailable than heme iron found in animal sources. This essentially means that our body does not take in all of its properties so we need to help it. Up to just 10% of iron in plant foods is absorbed, compared to up to 40% in animal sources. Plant foods are highly fibrous and contain strong outer cells that our bodies struggle to break down fully. Think of a chickpea for example, a good source of iron but has a skin on its outside. That skin is what prevents the full absorption of iron into our cells, and is known as Phytate.
In addition, non heme sources also contain polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, that prevents full absorption of iron. Polyphenols bind to iron in the intestinal tract where it is normally absorbed, and passes through the intestinal tract and excreted from the body. This is why many people on a plant based diet can struggle to get adequate iron intake from their diet, despite eating lots of vegetables, beans and pulses.
Luckily there are easy ways to help prevent deficiency and increase absorption without having to start eating meat again.
Three key points to start doing NOW if you aren’t already:
- Make sure that with every iron source (dried fruits, green leafy vegetables, beans and pulses), you also have a source of Vitamin C. Vitamin C, also known as Ascorbic Acid, increases the absorption of iron!
- Leave 1 hour between eating and consuming a caffeinated drink (teas, coffee, matcha, energy drinks, fizzy drinks).
- When menstruating, increase your intake of iron. Iron is lost through blood and during menstruation iron stores can become quickly depleted.
If you have any concerns about your iron intake, consult your GP to get tested. If you follow a plant based diet it is always advised to get blood tested to make sure you aren’t running low on anything.