By, Emilia Miller
Being a herbivore in today’s 21st century isn’t nearly as complicated as it was fifty, even ten years ago! Many more individuals are adopting a vegan diet protocol, and therefore the grocery industry and nutritional market are reciprocating in further supply of vegan foods, supplements, and education. Many energy bars, protein powders (hemp, rice, pea, cranberry, pumpkin, etc.), alternative milks, faux meats, and supplements are emerging in the current nutritional market to meet the nutritional needs of the growing vegan population. Although abiding by a vegan based diet is no sweat these days, there are essential micronutrients of absolute importance that vegans need to be aware of. Those include: Iron, Vitamin B12, Calcium, Vitamin D, zinc, and phosphorous (5). Today, Iron is going to be on the spotlight. Let’s talk all about iron; what foods are Stellar sources of, how to optimize your absorption of, and the Recommended daily allowances (rDA) by the academy of nutrition and dietetics .
Fraser, K. (n.d.). Vegan sources or iron: Curry leaves to the rescue! Pranin Blog.
Iron is an essential mineral required by red blood cells in order to deliver oxygen throughout the body. It’s key for energy metabolism, and it also plays a role in DNA synthesis and immunity. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide, and it’s more prevalent among women than men, largely due to the fact that women lose iron through menstruation (4). Low iron stores lead frequently to anemia (iron-deficiency); symptoms include fatigue, pallor, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath.
As far as iron recommendations go, the RDA for women between the ages of nineteen and fifty is 18 milligrams daily. For men, it’s lower–8 milligrams daily–to make up for the fact that for women some
iron is lost through blood loss during menstruation. For teenagers (ages:14-18 years), it’s 15 mg daily. Women who are 51+, the iron RDA is 8 mg daily (4).
Non-heme iron is the form of iron found in plant foods, and is less well absorbed than heme iron, which comprises about 40% of the iron found in meat, poultry, and fish. Non-heme iron makes up about 60% of the iron found in plant tissue and fortified foods (3). Some research shows that the bioavailability of iron from diets that contain substantial amounts of animal protein is about 14-18%, while it’s closer to 5% to 12% from vegetarian diets (4). Vegans may need to take in further iron in order to account for this difference.
Many plant foods rich in iron are also high in phytates (phytic acid). Phytates bind to iron and other minerals, inhibiting their absorption (3). Vegans should be mindful of this, and use techniques to help mitigate the effects of phytates so optimized absorption of iron is possible.
Hackett, J. (n.d.). What is Tahini. Retrieved from The Spruce Eats.
Consuming foods rich in vitamin C (ascorbic acid)— along with foods that are high in iron, since vitamin C greatly increases the absorption of non-heme iron (2). Vitamin C, which is found in plant-based foods including bell pepper, strawberries, mustard greens, and citrus, can increase iron absorption up to six-fold, which may ultimately outweigh the differences in bioavailability between heme and non-heme iron.
The Institutes of Medicine suggests that vegetarians and vegans get 1.8 times the RDA (5).
Maximizing consumption of beans, seeds +nuts, soy foods, leafy greens, certain grains (especially quinoa, bulgur, and pearled barley), blackstrap molasses, cashews, fortified non-dairy milk products, and sesame seeds/tahini, can ensure the plant-based individual isn’t at risk for iron-deficiency.
Below is a list of eighteen plant-based foods abundant in iron, and their corresponding RDAs:
SPINACH, COOKED, 1 CUP: 6.4 MG (36%)
TOFU, 4 OUNCES: 6.4 MG (36%)
SOYBEANS, COOKED, 1/2 CUP: 4.4 MG (24%)
SWISS CHARD, COOKED, 1 CUP: 4.0 MG (22%)
BLACKSTRAP MOLASSES, 1 TABLESPOON: 3.6 MG (20%)
LENTILS, COOKED, 1/2 CUP: 3.3 MG (18%)
POTATO, COOKED, 1 LARGE: 3.2 MG (18%)
TURNIP GREENS, COOKED, 1 CUP: 3.2 MG (18%)
QUINOA, COOKED, 1 CUP: 2.8 MG (16%)
TAHINI, 2 TABLESPOONS: 2.7 MG (15%)
PEAS, COOKED, 1 CUP: 2.5 MG (14%)
TEMPEH, 4 OUNCES: 2.4 MG (13%)
CASHEWS, RAW OR ROASTED, 1/4 CUP: 2.1 MG (12%)
KIDNEY BEANS, COOKED, 1/2 CUP: 2.0 MG (11%)
CHICKPEAS, COOKED, 1/2 CUP: 1.8 MG (10%)
BLACK BEANS, COOKED, 1/2 CUP: 1.8 MG (10%)
BOK CHOY, COOKED, 1 CUP: 1.8 MG (10%)
BULGUR, COOKED, 1 CUP: 1.7 MG (10%)
[USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, 2018 and Manufacturer's information]
A few examples of iron-rich plant food combinations to maximize your iron intake....
BLACKSTRAP MOLASSES (20%) + BLACK BEANS (10%) = 30%
A serving of blackstrap molasses and black beans equates to 30% of your RDA!
SPINACH (36%) + QUINOA (16%) = 52%
A serving of spinach and quinoa paired together amounts to a whopping 52% of your RDA for the day! Not too shabby! Add spinach to your favorite quinoa pilaf or make a grain bowl with your favorite sauce and beans.
As you can see, obtaining ample non-heme iron within a day of meals is not as difficult of a feat as you may have anticipated; it's a matter of selecting the right foods and combining them appropriately, with Vitamin C if possible.
1. HADDAD EH, BERK LS, KETTERING JD, HUBBARD RW, PETERS WR. DIETARY INTAKE AND BIOCHEMICAL, HEMATOLOGIC, AND IMMUNE STATUS OF VEGANS COMPARED WITH NONVEGETARIANS. AM J CLIN NUTR 1999;70(SUPPL):586S-93S.
2. OBEID R, GEISEL J, SCHORR H, ET AL. THE IMPACT OF VEGETARIANISM ON SOME HAEMATOLOGICAL PARAMETERS. EUR J HAEMATOL. 2002;69:275-9.
3. HURRELL R, EGLI I. IRON BIOAVAILABILITY AND DIETARY REFERENCE VALUES. AM J CLIN NUTR 2010;91:1461S-7S.
4. HALLBERG L. BIOAVAILABILITY OF DIETARY IRON IN MAN. ANN REV NUTR 1981;1:123-147.
5. INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE. FOOD AND NUTRITION BOARD. DIETARY REFERENCE INTAKES FOR VITAMIN A, VITAMIN K, ARSENIC, BORON, CHROMIUM, COPPER, IODINE, IRON, MANGANESE, MOLYBDENUM, NICKEL, SILICON, VANADIUM, AND ZINC : A REPORT OF THE PANEL ON MICRONUTRIENTS. WASHINGTON, DC: NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS; 2001.
6. ARMAH SM, BOY E, CHEN D, CANDAL P, REDDY MB. REGULAR CONSUMPTION OF A HIGH-PHYTATE DIET REDUCES THE INHIBITORY EFFECT OF PHYTATE ON NONHEME-IRON ABSORPTION IN WOMEN WITH SUBOPTIMAL IRON STORES. J NUTR 2015
7. GILLOOLY M, BOTHWELL TH, TORRANCE JD, MACPHAIL AP, DERMAN DP, BEZWODA WR, ET AL. THE EFFECTS OF ORGANIC ACIDS, PHYTATES AND POLYPHENOLS ON THE ABSORPTION OF IRON FROM VEGETABLES. BR J NUTR 1983;49:331-42.
8. Welcome to the USDA Food Composition Databases. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/. 2018 Manufactures information.
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