Myth: We need lots of iron, and vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk of iron deficiency than meat eaters.

Truth: Vegans can easily obtain enough iron from plant foods and iron-deficiency anaemia is no more prevalent among vegans than non-vegans.

This page is a brief overview only: for a far more comprehensive read, check out my article about Plant-Based Iron, written for Edition 2 of The Australian Vegan Magazine.

In the past it was thought that non-heme iron from plants was inferior to the heme iron in meat because the body absorbs less of the non-heme iron. But more isn’t always better: Iron-overload is as important to avoid as iron deficiency.

When we source iron from plant foods, the body is able to decide how much iron to absorb based on existing iron levels and what is needed. If iron reserves are low, the body absorbs more. If they are high, it absorbs less. When iron is sourced from animal products, the body doesn’t have this same level of control, and will often absorb more than is needed.

The iron from vegetarian food sources is sufficient to promote adequate iron levels without encouraging iron stores above the recommended range. A diet of grains, vegetables, fruits and beans provides adequate iron, without the risk of overload.

Iron Overload

Major contributors to iron excess are iron supplements, excess consumption of red meat, and the eating of manufactured foods containing artificially added iron (e.g. fortified breakfast cereals). New research has found that excess iron is associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal and other cancers. Chronic iron overdose can also result in symptoms such as hostility, aggressive behaviour, gut damage, liver damage, low brain seratonin levels and fatigue.

Iron Deficiency

Deficiency signs can include angular stomatis (cracks/sores in the corners of lips), blue sclera (blue colouring in the white part of the eye), brittle nails, koilonychia (spoon shaped nails), pale skin.

Deficiency symptoms can include fatigue, cold sensitivity, dizziness, breathing difficulties, constipation, a burning mouth, trouble concentrating and remembering, fearfulness, depression, irritability, headaches, palpitations, poor immunity and physical weakness.

Please keep in mind these signs and symptoms may have other causes.

Iron Laboratory Tests

Haemoglobin levels show the amount of iron-containing protein.

Hematocrit levels reflect the concentration of red blood cells.

Serum ferritin measures the amount of stored iron.

Vegans and vegetarians usually have lower serum ferritin levels than meat eaters, but this won’t affect them negatively and besides ensuring better iron absorption, it can actually be linked with improved insulin sensitivity and a lesser risk of type 2 diabetes. There is also research taking place into possible links between low serum ferritin and a reduced risk of coronary artery disease, colon cancer and inflammatory conditions.

Iron Supplements

In research studies, ingestion of supplemental iron in even slightly elevated quantities is associated with increased risk of cognitive problems. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is concerned that there may be a link between iron supplements and Alzheimer’s disease, so please don’t take iron supplements unless you are actually deficient.

Plant-based Iron Sources

Iron supplements often cause constipation, while iron sourced from whole foods actually prevents or treats constipation.

Examples of herbs traditionally used for iron deficiency syndromes include Nettles, Licorice, Dandelion Root, Yellow Dock, Withania  and Alfalfa. Modern scientific examinations on the nutritional content of herbs have shown the following to be very high in iron (from highest to lowest): Devil’s Claw, Chickweed, Mullien, Blue Cohosh, Kelp, Bilberry, Burdock, Thyme, Barberry, Catnip, Horsetail, Celery Seed, Marshmallow, Milk Thistle, Red Rasberry Leaf and Dandelion Root.

Rich food sources of iron include legumes, molasses, tofu, nuts, seeds, avocado, wholegrains (esp. amaranth and quinoa), dried fruits and dark green leafy vegetables.

What helps Iron Absorption?

Including a Vit C rich food with meals to increase iron absorption – eg berries, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, capsicum, tomatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, snow peas, strawberries, pawpaw, melon. Vitamin C, citric acid (from citrus fruits) and amino acids all aid in the absorption of iron.

Synergistic nutrients include B12, B2, Vit C, folic acid, histamine, lysine, selenium, molybdenum, copper, and citrate. These nutrients are often found alongside iron in natural whole foods. These nutrients assist with the absorption and metabolism of iron.

What hinders Iron Absorption?

Iron is absorbed via the stomach and small intestines. If there are health problems affecting these organs, absorption can be compromised. A classic example is achlorhydria, a lack of stomach acid. This is why antacids can negatively affect iron absorption. Naturopaths can assist poor digestion with herbs like meadowsweet, or digestive enzymes.

Another cause of poor absorption can be stomach bleeding as a result of using salicylate based drugs like aspirin. Aspirin is a good example of the problems that can occur when you isolate and concentrate one specific plant chemical and turn it into a drug; meadowsweet is a salicylate containing herb that actually heals stomach irritation, rather than causing it.

The following foods hinder iron absorption: excess dietary fat and refined sugar, coffee, tea, wine, dairy products, carbonated soft-drinks, egg yolks. (e.g. drink tea and coffee between meals instead of with meals.)

The following supplements hinder iron absorption: calcium, zinc, manganese, magnesium oxide,magnesium trisilicate.  Calcium supplements seem to be the one most researchers are concerned about.

The following medications hinder iron absorption: antacids, aspirin, antibiotics, NSAIDS (Non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen.)

Compiled by Omanisa Ross ND, from the following sources:
Becoming Vegan (comprehensive edition) by Brenda Davis RD and Vesanto Melina MS, RD
The Nutrient Bible (8th Edition) by Henry Osiecki
Nutritional Herbology (A reference guide to herbs) by Mark Pedersen (Naturopathic doctor and research chemist)

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