Iron is essential in the human diet due to its 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 deficient 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 vegan or plant-based diets.
Understanding the two types of iron.
Plant foods contain 100% non heme iron where as animal foods contain mostly heme iron. Unfortunately, just 10% of iron in plant foods is absorbed, compared to up to 40% in animal sources. This is due to the high fibre content and strong outer cells that the body struggles to break down fully, in plant foods. For example, when you squish a chickpea a skin is released from the pea. This fibrous skin (known as a phytate) restricts the amount of iron that is absorbed by the cells in the body. Consequently, although chickpeas are a good course of iron, we don’t get optimal nutrient value from them.
Non-heme sources of iron also contain polyphenols. These are a type of antioxidant, known to prevent full absorption of iron. Polyphenols bind to iron in the intestinal tract during digestion and are excreted from the body. Consequently, despite consuming a diet rich in non-heme iron, it is still difficult to get adequate iron intake and deficiencies can still occur.
Despite these factors, there are methods we can do to increase iron absorption without having to consume meat products.
Three hacks to start now, if you aren’t already:
- Consume vitamin C with every iron source you eat. Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid and helps increase the absorption of iron.
- Example: squeeze lemon or lime on your plant-based meal
- Example: dip red peppers into hummus
- Example: drink a small glass of orange juice with your meal
- Leave 1 hour between eating and consuming a caffeinated drink (teas, coffee, matcha, energy drinks, fizzy drinks) as caffeine limits iron absorption.
- opt for de-caffeinated tea or coffee if this is an easier option for you.
- During your period, 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 a blood test. If you follow a plant-based diet it is advisable to get yearly blood tests to make sure you’re not deficient in any vital nutrients.