When we source iron from animal products and/or supplements, our body isn’t able to intelligently modulate uptake. The iron is absorbed, whether we need it or not, and this can put us in danger of iron excess. Iron is pro-oxidative and hence damaging to DNA and other molecules.
Iron excess is associated with a broad range of chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal and other cancers. Chronic (long term) iron overdose can result in aggressive behaviour, fatigue or hyperactivity, gut damage, seratonin imbalances, liver damage and so on.
When we source our iron from plant based foods, our body automatically adjusts how much we absorb based on what we need, which means we are in no danger of iron excess. If we need less, we will absorb less; if we need more, we absorb more. Vegans and vegetarians typically develop lower ferritin stores and this optimizes their absorption of iron.
WHAT ENHANCES IRON ABSORPTION?
You can dramatically enhance this absorption process by making sure you have vitamin-C rich foods with (or around about the same times as) iron rich foods. Most fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, but some of the richer sources are broccoli, cabbage, kale, parsley, capsicum, black currants, guava, kiwifruit, mango, orange, pineapple, rockmelon, and strawberry. The citric acids in citrus fruits also enhance absorption, as do the beta-carotenes in yellow, red and orange foods.
What I love is that plant-based foods often contain the perfect ratio of iron to absorption-enhancing cofactors, all in the one neat and tidy package. Whole foods are more than the sum of their parts due to the synergistic effect of plant nutrients (phytonutrients). Think of this as being a bit like a magical chemistry experiment, where the ingredients added interact in incredible ways, unlocking and transforming one another into new forms or combining to form something completely different from the starting ingredients : this is what happens in our body when we eat whole foods.
I absolutely love fruit smoothies with an abundance of nut and seeds added, along with organic kale and lemon from my garden. This morning I had frozen bananas with kale, lemon, walnuts, unhulled tahini paste and figs. I wasn’t deliberately looking for anything in particular nutritionally with this mix, but it’s accidentally high in both calcium, iron and all the cofactors needed to enhance iron absorption. And last night we had pizza with our own homemade ‘cheese’ drizzled over the top: a combination or avocado, cashews, lemon juice, salt and fresh basil from the garden… another really good example of iron mixed with absorption-enhancing cofactors.
Humous is another perfect example: loads of chickpeas and tahini with lemon juice and garlic! Did you know that adding onions and garlic to your meals can increase availability of iron from grains and legumes by 50%. Isn’t that amazing!? And if you were being really clever with your kitchen alchemy, you would sprout your chickpeas before you cook them because sprouting your legumes significantly improves iron availability.
Another good example of great food combining in the kitchen might be a kale salad with sprouted lentils of chickpeas, green beans, red capsicum, tomato, avocado and lemon juice, with everything massaging in together so the flavours mix and the kale softens. No offence to pop-eye, but the abundant iron in spinach isn’t anywhere near as absorbable as the iron from some of its green cousins, such as kale, broccoli and green beans.
WHAT HINDERS IRON ABSORPTION?
Poor digestive function in the stomach (i.e. not enough hydrochloric acid) can compromise your ability to absorb iron. To remedy this, it helps to address your eating style by making sure you slow down to eat and reduce stress and multi-tasking. Be present relaxed and happy when you eat, as much as possible, and on a more general level, reduce/address stress in your life and work on improving your ability to respond to it calmly and effectively. You can also improve stomach digestion via the use of herbs (especially bitter tasting herbs like dandelion and chamomile) and digestive enzymes.
Of course, it goes without saying that antacids are going to impair iron absorption. Other drugs that impair iron absorption include antibiotics, bile acid sequestrants, antibiotic and NSAIDS (e.g. Aspirin.These have the added problem of possibly causing loss of iron via stomach bleeding),
Excessive intake of calcium in the form of dairy products and/or supplements, can hinder your absorption of iron. As far as I can tell, when we eat plant-based whole foods that contain both iron and calcium, the ratios of one to the other are not extreme, and our body can select and choose what it needs based on an ongoing self-assessment of both iron and calcium levels. Other supplements that can decrease iron absorption include magnesium and zinc supplements. It’s these complexities regarding nutrition that make nature’s whole plant-foods the best pharmacy you can turn to.
Drinking tea and coffee with your meals is not a good idea as they can reduce your ability to absorb minerals such as iron.
PLANT-BASED IRON CONTENT
Women of menstruating age need the highest iron dose per day, of around 18mg per day.
The following contains just over 22mg, keeping in mind that nutrient content varies:
¼ cup chickpeas = 1.2mg
½ cup lentils = 3.5mg
½ cup cooked broccoli = 0.5mg
¼ cup hempseeds = 4.9mg
¼ avocado = 0.25mg
½ cup strawberries = 0.3mg
½ cup oatmeal = 1.1mg
½ cup quinoa = 1.4mg
½ cup chopped basil = 0.6mg
½ cup parsley = 2mg
½ cup cooked sweet potato = 1.2mg
½ cup tofu = 2.5mg
¼ cup pumpkin seeds =2.9mg