Now that you are seriously considering adopting a vegan diet (or lifestyle,) or have just cut meat out of your meals, you might be wondering where you are going to get your iron now that you don't eat meat. I wish I had known this when I was younger, or even cared to even have such a concern. Although I felt fine over the years, I look back in hindsight and realize some of the things that I had experienced like hair shedding, feeling tired, and cold hands and feet. I was borderline anemic. The good news though is that you don't have to experience some of the things that I did. If you want to cut out meat, there is a healthy way to do it. You can still get all the iron you need without the cholersterol.
So, let's talk about iron. What exactly is iron and why do we need it?
Iron is a vital component of hemoglobin which is the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to transport it to all parts of your body. If you don't have enough iron, your body can't make enough healthy oxygen carrying red blood cells. This can lead to iron deficiency, and oftentimes, anemia. There are two types of iron, heme-iron, and non-heme iron. Heme-iron is the iron that we get from meat, and non-heme iron is iron that does not come from animal meat, like from plants or even cast iron skillets.
While we certainly can get our iron from both animal or plants, the iron from animal meat is easily absorbed in the body moreso than plant iron. Ideally, you want to make sure that you are eating iron rich foods such as black beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, onions, raisins, apricots, almonds, spinach, and yes, kale. But there is more to this story. Since the iron found in plant foods is not as easily absorbed as heme iron, that is where the vitamin C comes in. Vitamin C is the aid that when consumed along with your iron, you are absorbing the iron from the foods that you are eating. Vitamin C is found in oranges, broccoli, lemons, tomatoes, guava, kiwi, grapefruit, papaya, red and green peppers, brussels sprouts, and mango among others.
Be aware of certain inhibitors.
There are certain foods that can actually get in the way or inhibit iron absorption such as coffee, teas, chocolate, and calcium. With that said, say for example you had a morning coffee with a friend, and then you are on your way to have lunch together. Your lunch is a bean burrito and kale salad, which is all rich in iron. The coffee is going to interfere with the absorption of that iron, and it will be as if you didn't even get your iron intake. What should you do? Be minful of that coffee, and give yourself at least one to two hours after your coffee before you have lunch, and enjoy your lunch with an iced lemon water. Otherwise, you won't be absorbing that iron that you are consuming.
You might be low in iron.
Are you feeling like your energy level is low? Feeling unusually fatigued? Are your nails becoming brittle and breaking off, or experience hair shedding, too? First, don't panic. It very well may be due to an iron deficiency. So be sure to get your iron intake with proper foods, and see your doctor if you are experiencing any of these signs just to be sure. They can run a blood test to check your levels, and to rule out anything that is potentially more serious. Be sure to ask them to check your ferritin levels, too. Ferritin is your storehouse of iron. Your body's primary focus is to get blood to vital organs, and with iron or ferritin levels low, things that are least important, like your hair and nails are going to be a sign that something is amiss. Being healthy, eating the proper nutrition, and feeling your best is your number one priority. Nothing needs to be compromised when changing to eating vegan.
How much iron do you need?
Daily recommendations for iron vary. It is recommended for children between the ages of 2-11yrs get between 13-15mg, teens between 12-19yrs get a daily intake of 16mg, men 19 yrs or older get 20mg of iron daily, and women 19yrs or older 18mg. And of course, always check with your doctor first if you think you might be low in iron and are considering supplementing. As a general guideline, you can get your daily iron intake from real, whole, plant foods.
Eating whole, nutrient rich foods...
is really all you need for healthy and sustainable you. Continue to eat fruits and vegetables, meals that incorporate beans, like bean bowls, salads, burritos, soups - you name it - and pair it with vitamin C, and you will get all the essential iron you need.
Try my green smoothie and feel energized!
I hope this clears up some questions you might have about iron. Iron is very important to have in your diet, so be sure you are getting your share.