Do you know that over 40% of women are iron deficient? Regardless of if they follow a plant-based diet or not. I did extensive research into iron because, at the beginning of my journey, I suffered from iron deficiency too.
It’s not a surprise that the question I get asked a lot is how I deliver iron while being a vegan. So of course, iron is a hot topic for me, and for anyone who follows a plant-based diet, for that matter.
I always look for natural solutions to improve my health. But I’m even more interested in how iron impacts my mental and physical energy. So, keep reading to learn about iron, what iron deficiency is, how it impacts your performance, and how to increase your iron intake.
But before we start, get your copy of my e-book The Wholehearted Diet. Discover the power of plant-based eating, stress less, and have more energy.
Are Vegans Iron Deficient
Before we jump into what it means to have iron deficiency and what to do about it, I want to clear some of your concerns. And that is that if you follow a plant-based diet or that you are a vegan, you are automatically iron deficient.
You may be iron deficient on whatever diet you follow.
I want you to think about iron deficiency in a different way. Rather than focusing on what diet you follow, focus on what you eat. Do you eat enough products that contain iron?
The standard western diet is not only iron deficient but is nutrient deficient.
I’m sorry to say but there is no iron in white bread, spaghetti pasta, or pizza crust. There is also no iron in ice cream, chips, and cookies. There is also no iron in milk or soft drink, well you get my point.
In addition, each one of us loses minerals and vitamins differently. Also, our body absorbs nutrients differently. Think about it. You can eat all the iron in the world, but if your body cannot absorb it, you become iron deficient. Vegan or non-vegan.
Following a healthy plant-based diet ensures that you eat products containing iron and eat plenty of vegetables. It means that you not only deliver this crucial mineral but you consume other minerals to help with absorption (more about that later).
Now, after some tough love, let’s dive in.
What Is Iron?
Iron is a mineral essential for your body to function properly. It is needed for growth and development. The key role of iron is for your body to use hemoglobin and certain hormones.
Iron is found in red blood cells (hemoglobin), which carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Iron is also found in myoglobin which carries oxygen to your muscles. Without iron, your red blood cells can’t function properly, and you may suffer heart problems or compromise your immune system.
There are two types of iron: heme which is animal-derived, and non-heme which is plant-derived. Therefore, when you stop eating animal products, your main source of iron becomes non-heme iron.
Yes, you can take iron supplements, but there are plenty of plant-based sources of iron. You need the right amount of iron, as too much iron can cause iron poisoning.
So, how much iron do you need?
The general guidelines say that women between the age of 19 to 50 need 14.8mg, and men over 18 need 8.7mg. If you are a woman over 50, 8.7mg is recommended. However, as with any guidelines, this needs to be adjusted to your lifestyle, health, or stage of life (e.g. pregnant women need 27mg of iron daily).
Now, if following a plant-based diet, your iron intake needs to be 1.8 times higher.
The most common reason for iron deficiency is of course inadequate iron consumption. It means that if you follow a plant-based diet it’s important you increase the intake of nonheme iron. Some foods are full of iron, and they need to be part of your meals.
When I started following a plant-based diet, I removed all animal and animal-derived products. But I didn’t pay enough attention to if I ate an adequate amount of other products to compensate for the heme iron loss.
However, the first sign that you are low on iron is fatigue. I used to feel tired all the time. I thought it was normal because I was busy after all. I also didn’t sleep enough and didn’t take any rest.
I even had a few episodes when I felt lightheaded and had dizzy spells. Again, I thought it was because I was busy, stressed, and overwhelmed. And some of it probably was true.
In addition, you lose minerals and vitamins naturally. And as iron is found in hemoglobin (red blood cells), you lose iron with blood loss. It is not uncommon to be low on iron at some point during the month, especially if you still menstruate.
I felt tired, sluggish, irritated, and lacking energy for a long time. So, I decided to have my blood checked. My blood test showed that I was low on iron.
There are different tests you can run, but a standard blood test will show what is the healthy range of iron for you and what is your current level.
How Iron Impacts Your Energy Levels
You must keep an eye on your iron because iron directly impacts your energy levels. I have already mentioned that I felt tired all the time. I had days when I couldn’t get up from bed because I felt exhausted.
Yes, stress, overwhelm, and burnout played a role, but so did low iron.
Iron found in muscle cells (called myoglobin) helps with oxygen distribution. If there is not enough oxygen in your muscles, you can’t exercise. You don’t have the strength to do a plank, go for a run, or walk up the stairs. Iron also helps with collagen production. And you need collagen for joint health.
When there is not enough oxygen being delivered to your blood you can’t focus, you are lightheaded, and you are easily irritated. It’s hard to maintain high mental energy levels when you feel like that.
Your iron deficiency may start with low energy levels, but it can eventually lead to serious health consequences such as anaemia.
Sources of Plant-Based Iron
After I got my blood results, the doctor put me on iron supplements. However, I’m not very keen on taking any form of medication. I strongly believe that food is medicine and we should be able to deliver all nutrients our body requires through food.
Therefore, the first port of call for me was to look for plant-based sources of iron.
The first on the list are dark green leafy vegetables with spinach and silverbeet containing the highest amount. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts include iron, and so do some types of mushrooms and potato skins.
Legumes, beans, peas, and lentils are other sources of iron. The most popular are tofu and tempeh. Iron is also present in nuts, seeds, and wholegrains such as spelt, quinoa, or oats.
Other products containing iron are coconut milk, dark chocolate, dry thyme, olives, and prune juice.
I re-did my diet and started eating more products that contained iron. I not only wanted to bring my
levels up to a healthy level but to maintain the level long term. It required some innovation and creativity but trust me, it is doable.
How to Increase Iron Absorption
As I mentioned earlier, you may be iron deficient regardless of what type of diet you follow. What’s more, you may even eat a lot of products containing iron, and still, come up short. Why?
Because your body may not be absorbing the iron you consume.
Nutrients need each other to fully function in your body. If you don’t deliver one, the other cannot perform its duties. When it comes to iron absorption, you need to consume vitamin C.
I eat a variety of vegetables and fruit to ensure I deliver adequate amounts of vitamin C. It can be as simple as sautéed mushrooms with garlic and spinach with a drizzle of lemon juice.
It is also recommended to avoid drinking coffee or tea with iron-rich products as it reduces the absorption. It is also worth mentioning that iron competes with calcium, so try avoiding eating products containing either one of the minerals at the same time.
Iron and Your Energy Levels
My relationship with iron is much better now. My diet is healthier and includes plenty of iron-rich foods. I also learned the science of food pairing, making sure that my body can absorb the iron I deliver.
There are many reasons why you may be iron deficient. Following a plant-based diet may not necessarily put you at risk.
Your iron levels are directly linked to your energy levels. You will feel tired, irritated, and unenergetic if your iron is low. You can easily deliver iron through plant-based sources such as legumes, vegetables, seeds, or wholegrains.
How about you? Do you consume enough iron to make you mentally and physically strong?
Ready to get started with a plant-based diet? Get your copy of my e-book The Wholehearted Diet. Discover the power of plant-based eating, stress less, and have more energy.