Iron deficiency is a rather common condition nowadays. Pregnant women, children and vegetarians are considered to be high risk groups and doctors routinely prescribe them iron supplements. But do they really need one, or can iron deficiency be avoided just with the help of iron-rich foods?
Side effects of iron supplements
First of all, it’s important to understand if you have any iron deficiency at all. For that you can simply make a routine blood test – nowadays some companies even allow to do so without a doctor’s visit (here is an example of one such Test for Nutrient Deficiencies that we know of).
Unless you are suffering with a severe case of anemia or have a serious medical condition, there should be no need for you to take iron supplements. Moreover, there are good reasons why you should avoid taking one. First of all, its side effects like constipation or diarrhea together with abdominal pain and cramps are common, and a medicine to aid digestion is often prescribed along with an iron supplement.
To do a quick check of what short-term issues appear to be most common, we did a search on Google, putting “iron supplements” with the word “why”, and here are the top suggested queries that appeared:
Recent research shows that If iron is taken in excessive quantities it can even cause long-term adverse effects on health. Some studies showed a suggestive association between dietary heme and risk of colon cancer. So, unless an iron supplement is absolutely necessary, it is worth trying to get all the iron you need from food sources.
Difference between iron in animal foods and in plant-based foods
Vegetarians and vegans are often diagnosed with iron deficiency. There are two different types of dietary iron that are found in foods: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is only found in animal foods and it is much easier absorbed than non-heme iron. Animal foods with the highest content of iron include, for example, liver, beef, clams.
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods and it does not get absorbed as well as heme iron. It is possible however to increase non-heme iron absorption with the right combination of foods.
How to increase iron absorption from plant-based food
There are a few simple rules you need to follow in order to increase absorption of non-heme iron:
- Always combine iron-rich foods with Vitamin C
Vitamin C helps to absorb iron and synthesizes red blood cells.
Here is an example of some foods containing a big amount of Vitamin C (besides lemons, oranges and fresh chilli peppers):
2. Do not combine iron-rich foods with foods that contain caffeine
Coffee and black tea can reduce your iron absorption by as much as 60%. Try to bring caffeinated foods and beverages in your diet to the minimum. If it is not possible, keep at least two hours between your iron-rich meal and a cup of coffee.
3. Do not combine iron-rich foods with foods that contain calcium
Studies have shown that calcium can inhibit iron absorption, the inhibitory effect, however, may be of short duration. Similar to caffeine, try to avoid eating any foods that contain calcium (for example, dairy) together with your iron-rich meal.
4. Consume foods containing phytic acid the right way
Phytic acid is found in plant seeds and it may interfere with absorption of various minerals and nutrients, in particular iron, zync and calcium. Foods with high content of phytic acid, however, are also the biggest sources of non-heme iron – it includes seeds, legumes and nuts. To neutralise phytic acid always soak the foods (at best overnight), or use techniques like sprouting and fermentation. Vitamin C also counteracts phytic acid.
5. Improve your overall gut health
Including probiotics in your regular diet can improve absorption of minerals significantly. Probiotic foods include yoghurt, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi.
Iron-rich foods for vegans and vegetarians
There are a few main groups of vegetarian and vegan foods that are rich in iron. If you follow the main rules of non-heme iron absorption, they might meet your daily iron requirement.
Different types of lentils, beans, including soy products, are known sources of iron for vegans and vegetarians. It includes flours made from legumes like chickpea flour. Don’t forget to soak legumes overnight to neutralise phytic acid. Here are a few examples:
2. Leafy greens
Spinach is not the only source of plant-based iron, even though it is the most popular one. Other leafy greens like beet greens, swiss chard or turnip greens are also extremely high in iron.
3. Dry fruits, berries and vegetables
Some dried fruits and vegetables have significantly more iron than their raw form. The best example is sun dried tomatoes that have more iron than natto. Dried apricots are an example of iron-rich dried fruits.
4. Seeds and nuts
Seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds etc.) are the real powerhouse of iron. It is also crucial to soak them before consumption. Here are a few examples of iron content in seeds:
Certain grains and cereals, including quinoa, buckwheat and oats, also contain high amounts of iron. Don’t forget to soak the grains before consumption.
Molasses is often prescribed by nutritionists as a natural “iron supplement”. Jaggery (gur), raw unprocessed cane sugar, also has high contents of iron.
Recipes of some Iron-rich foods for vegans and vegetarians
Nutrition data source: http://nutritiondata.self.com/