Why do we need iron?
Iron has many functions in the body, the most well-known being at the center of hemoglobin, the protein which transports oxygen in the blood. A similar protein (myoglobin) is also found transporting oxygen in the muscle tissue. Iron is also required for numerous (93) enzymes, and cytochromes involved in cellular energy production (e.g. cytochrome C) and detoxification (cytochrome P450 family). Iron is also required for the production of thyroid hormones, and has a role in the metabolism of neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
Heme iron found in meat and animal products is generally more easily absorbed by the human body than the non-heme iron found in plants. For this reason, the recommended daily intake of iron is 1.8 times higher for vegetarians and vegans than for those who eat meat. This amounts to approximately 14 mg per day for men and post-menopausal women, 32 mg per day for menstruating women, and 49 mg per day for pregnant women. (source 1, source 2).
However, there are various strategies that can be employed to increase the body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron. Here are the best-researched methods:
- Eat vitamin C-rich foods: Consuming vitamin C-rich foods together with foods rich in non-heme iron may increase the absorption of iron by up 300%.
- Avoid coffee and tea with meals: Drinking coffee and tea with meals can reduce iron absorption by 50-90% (Inhibition of non-heme iron absorption).
- Soak, sprout and ferment: Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting grains and legumes can improve iron absorption by lowering the number of phytates naturally present in these foods (Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values).
- Use a cast iron pan: Foods prepared in a cast iron pan tend to provide two to three times more iron than those prepared in non-iron cookware (Iron content of food cooked in iron utensils).
- Consume lysine-rich foods: Consuming plant foods like legumes and quinoa that are rich in the amino acid lysine together with your iron-rich meals may increase iron absorption (Nutritional factors and hair loss).
So, what should you eat to keep your iron up on a plant-based diet?
Examples of foods with the highest amount of non-heme iron per serving:
- Whole wheat breads, cereals, pastas, quinoa, and oatmeal
- Cooked spinach and cooked mushrooms
- Baked potato
- Legumes, soybeans, tofu, and lentils
Pairing high-iron foods with ingredients that are high in vitamin C will enhance your body’s ability to absorb iron. (source) Foods high in vitamin C are:
- Citrus fruits and citrus juice
- Red or green bell pepper
- Kiwi, strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and papaya
Some foods will hinder your body’s ability to absorb iron:
- Coffee, tea (even decaffeinated), and soda
- Dairy products and calcium supplements
- Foods high in dietary fiber
- Wine and beer
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You might also like this post: #1 Reason Why Prepping Your Meals is Important
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