Health: Getting your dose of iron in a plant-based diet

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There are many benefits to a plant-based diet. Research shows vegetarian diets are linked with several health advantages: lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure; and a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and overall cancer.

A smaller number of studies show benefits for dementia, diverticulitis, gallstones and rheumatoid arthritis. However, ensuring nutritional adequacy of the plant-based way of eating is key, and one nutrient that’s often overlooked is iron.

Getting enough iron is vital for energy levels and brain function. But if you’ve recently gone meat-free, how do you know if you’re getting enough?

Understanding your iron needs

Iron is crucial to the formation of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around your body. If your cells don’t get enough oxygen, you may feel fatigued.

Haemoglobin is also a component of red blood cells—not having enough iron can cause you to look pale.

And, when you run short on the iron required to help form these red blood cells, this can result in a condition known as anaemia.

How much do you need?

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia recommends a daily intake of 18 mg of iron for adult women and 8 mg for adult men each day.

As women lose iron during menstruation, they’re at much higher risk of developing iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia, therefore they have a higher recommended target. In fact, 1 in 3 Australian women don’t consume enough iron!

Where do you get iron in your diet?

There are two main forms of iron in food—haem (found in animal foods) and non-haem (found in plant foods). Your body can absorb haem iron much more efficiently than non-haem iron.

That’s why it’s important to ensure you get enough non-haem iron when you start to reduce your meat intake.

Good sources of iron

Animal sources (haem) mg Meat Free sources (non-haem) mg
100 g liver 6.5 Milo, 1 heaped tablespoon 6.0
100 g cooked lean beef 3.3 100g Tofu, firm 5.2
120 g sardines  3.2 Green leafy vegetables (½ cup) 3.2
100 g cooked lean lamb  3.0 Vegie Delights, 2 sausages 2.5
2 eggs 2.5 Chickpeas, drained (½ cup) 2.5
100 g canned tuna 1.2 Cashews, ¼ cup  2.5
100 g cooked pork 1.1 Marmite, 1 teaspoon 1.8
100 g cooked chicken  0.4 8 dried apricot halves 1.5

As plant-based sources of iron are not as readily absorbed, there are a few ways to help your body absorb more iron at a meal.

Here’s how:

  • Include an iron-rich food at each meal
  • Select iron-fortified cereals
  • Choose wholegrain breads and pastas
  • Avoid drinking tea and coffee with your meals because these contain caffeine, which blocks iron absorption (if drinking these, do so between meals)
  • Combine your non-haem iron food with a vitamin C-rich food, such as broccoli, cabbage, capsicum, orange, kiwi fruit, strawberries or tomato to enhance absorption by 2-3 times

Appropriately planned plant-based diets, including total vegetarian or vegan, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may help in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, according to a new position paper of the American Dietetic Association. But be sure to consider where you are getting iron from in your diet.

Still confused? Why not visit your GP to check your iron or book in to a dietitian for advice on your diet.

Sue Radd is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and one of Australia’s leading nutritionists and health communicators. Her most recent book Food as Medicine: Eating for Your Best Health received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Health and Nutrition Book in the world for 2016.

Category: Ageing, Brain Health, Physical Health

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