Most seasoned vegans know all about the importance of supplementing their diets with B12, but we may overlook the deficiency that the World Health Organization considers “the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.”
The key to keeping our iron levels above the red is being mindful of how our bodies absorb the nutrient, especially since plant-based iron can be trickier for our bodies to process.
Iron deficiency leads to our tissues being oxygen deprived, since its major function is in transporting oxygen through our bloodstream. If we aren’t getting enough of this vital nutrient in our diets we could start feeling fatigued and more out of breath during physical exertion. If we reach the stage of iron anemia our skin can become paler, nails more brittle, hair thinner, immunity weaker and bodies generally less energetic.
Fortunately, blood tests are a quick way to assess our levels and iron abounds in both plant and animal-based foods.
Iron in Vegan Diet
If you’ve been told by your doctor that your iron levels could improve or are otherwise wanting to be mindful of getting enough in your diet, there are a few important facts to remember about iron absorption in vegans and vegetarians, according to Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD: Non-heme iron (plant-based) iron isn’t absorbed by the body as well as heme (animal-based) iron, but overloading your system with a bunch of supplements and then forgetting about your intake for the rest of the day is not the way to go!
Small amounts of iron throughout the day is the best way to ensure consistent absorption. Too much and the body simply will not absorb all of it at once. Eating iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods helps the body absorb it better. In fact, up to five times the amount of iron can be absorbed when assisted by its buddy, vitamin C.
Luckily, there are lots of plant-based foods with plenty of both nutrients, and combining your foods appropriately can help with absorption, too. (Check below for some recipe ideas!) Avoid drinking coffee at the same time you’re eating your iron-packed meals, as it can interfere with absorption. The tannins in both tea and coffee (even decaf) can make all your preparation moot.
There are tons of plant-based foods packed with iron and many more with high vitamin C contents. Taking a supplement is also an option, but to maximize your iron levels it’s best to also work more diverse foods into your diet. You can get pretty creative in combining these foods in different meals, so pop on your chef hat and waste no time in experimenting with a variety of ingredients.
To get started, here are some suggestions for meals that contain oodles of both nutrients:
- Stuffed Peppers with Lentils
- Smoothie with Kale and Tropical Papaya or Pineapple
- Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Quinoa and Cranberries
- Pea Pesto Pasta with Sundried Tomatoes
- Black Bean Burritos with Heirloom Tomato
- Salsa Chili-Glazed Tofu Tacos with Cabbage Slaw
- Cashew Garlic-Alfredo Pasta with Broccoli
- Pumpkin Seed Pate and Raw Veggies
- Tofu Stir Fry with Broccoli and Peppers