How to get iron on a vegan diet

Overall, the vegan lifestyle can lead to numerous health benefits. Part of this is due to the influx of such abundant micronutrients into plants, the other part is due to the avoidance of foods of animal origin which contain many harmful components such as cholesterol, trans and saturated fats, IGF-1, Neu5gc and other compounds strangers. Although still found in plants, nutrients like iron are a little harder to find on a vegan diet. Anemia is a common diagnosis affecting an estimated 3 million Americans (not just vegans) and results from iron deficiency. Not all vegans are anemic, but it helps to know the basics of avoiding it in the future. Here’s everything you need to know about the vegan diet and anemia.

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What is anemia?

Anemia is the most common blood disorder according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Anemic individuals do not have enough red blood cells (or damaged red blood cells) to carry enough oxygen in the bloodstream to the tissues of the body. Symptoms of anemia can vary on a severity scale. Mild symptoms present as fatigue or paleness, while more severe symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, and brittle nails and hair.

What are the causes of anemia?

Iron deficiency is the most common culprit of anemia, but it’s not the only trigger. Heavy menstrual cycles in women, cancer, vitamin B12 deficiency, and certain inflammatory and chronic diseases such as IBS can also cause an individual to be anemic. While you can’t easily control some of these rarer triggers, you can take charge of your iron and B12 intake. Here’s more on how these two nutrients affect blood oxygen levels.

Iron

Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that is absolutely crucial for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron also supports the proper functioning of cells, regulates hormone production and strengthens metabolism. Without enough iron, the body is unable to make enough red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to the body’s tissues, resulting in fatigue. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron for most adults is 8 milligrams for men and 18 milligrams for women.

Heme vs non-heme iron

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is mostly found in animal sources, although it can now be found in some plant-based meats such as Impossible Burger. Heme iron tends to be more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, which is found in both plant and animal foods. Of course, vegans tend to lack heme iron, although they can still get adequate amounts by consuming non-heme iron foods. Five hundred milligrams of vitamin C consumed in the same meal can greatly increase iron absorption, according to researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Vitamin B12 deficiency

Although a lack of vitamin B12 is one of the less common deficiencies that can lead to anemia, this nutrient is as important as iron in the production of red blood cells and the transport of oxygen within the bloodstream. Vitamin B12 is the only supplement every vegan (and person) should take on a regular basis, as this nutrient is extremely difficult to find in plant-based foods. Nutritional yeast is the only common plant-based food that naturally contains vitamin B12, and although there are some fortified vegan products on the market, a vegan supplement is a safe and effective way to ensure you don’t run out of deficiency. Most adults only need 2.4 micrograms per day, but don’t be alarmed if your supplement contains up to 500 micrograms – this amount does not constitute an overdose.

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The 5 best foods to get iron on a vegan diet

1 Legumes and beans

Legumes are often advertised for their high protein content, but a lesser known fact is that they are also high in iron. Legumes such as beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans (including tofu and tempeh) can help you reach your daily iron allowance. Both a cup of lentils and tofu contain around 6.6 grams of iron each. Kidney and lima beans are the two biggest sources of iron when it comes to beans – they contain 5.2 milligrams and 4.5 milligrams per cup, respectively.

2 quinoa

There is a reason quinoa has often been advertised as a superfood. This soft, hearty grain contains four grams of iron per half-cup dry serving. If you’re battling anemia, try replacing the rice in cereal bowls with this iron-rich vegan food.

3 Black molasses

This thick, syrupy substance is extremely high in iron, clocking in at 7.2 milligrams per two-tablespoon serving (nearly a day’s worth of iron to men!). While we don’t recommend shedding molasses like you do with vegan Nutella, there are ways to incorporate this food into your daily diet. This muhammara sauce recipe is a great place to start.

4 Nuts and seeds

Yes, nut butters matter too. While you should eat a little too many nuts to fully satisfy your iron needs, they help you achieve this. Look for pistachios, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds which all contain between 1-2.7 milligrams of iron per one-ounce serving.

5 Leafy vegetables

Popeye was right: green leafy vegetables are true nutritional powerhouses. Swiss chard is particularly rich in iron – about four milligrams per cup, cooked. Spinach also contains a significant amount of iron, but it is not easily absorbed by the body. Other vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale are good options.

Tully Zander is a devoted vegan, mother of two wonderful dogs, and she loves experimenting with plant-based foods by sharing tips on her blog, VegansFirst.

For more information on vegan health, read:
The best vegan protein sources
This doctor advises you to cut the keto and go vegan
Is milk bad for you? The truth about dairy

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