Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency regardless of dietary lifestyle. 75% of all women are affected. Nevertheless, those on a plant-based/plant-focused or vegan diet have an increased risk.
This is because iron is widely available in plant foods, yet plants also contain components that can reduce the absorption of iron.
Still, it is possible to meet the requirement by eating foods rich in iron and implementing strategies that increase iron absorption.
Thus, in this post, you'll learn everything you need to know about iron and how to meet the need on a plant-based diet.
- How is iron used in the body?
- How much iron do you need per day?
- What are good sources of iron?
- How can you increase iron absorption?
- How often should you check your iron levels with a blood test?
- What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
- How much iron is too much?
- Should you take an iron supplement?
How is iron used in the body?
Iron has many essential functions in the body. Among others, it is crucial for transporting and storing oxygen.
Moreover, it is involved in electron transport and the production of DNA and blood cells. Further, iron plays a role in metabolism, energy production, and is a part of proteins and enzymes.
How much iron do you need per day?
In general, women should consume 15 mg of iron per day and men 10 mg. However, the requirement varies throughout different life stages. Thus, you can find specific recommendations for all ages in the table below.
|Age||Recommended daily intake|
|0-4 months||0,5 mg|
|4 months - 7 years||8 mg|
|7 years - 10 years||10 mg|
|10 years - 19 years||Boys 12 mg, girls 15 mg|
|Men 19 and older||10 mg|
|Women 19 years - 51 years||15 mg|
|Women 51 and older||10 mg|
|Pregnant women||30 mg|
|Breastfeeding women||20 mg|
What are good sources of iron?
Here's a list of iron-rich plant foods:
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Baby greens
- Pumpkin seeds
- Flax seeds
How can you increase iron absorption?
- By fermenting, soaking or sprouting whole grains and legumes.
- By cooking oxalate-rich foods (f.e. spinach, beets, amaranth, etc.) and discarding the cooking water after.
- By incorporating vitamin C rich foods into your meals, f.e. lemon juice
- By consuming miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods.
- By avoiding to drink coffee, tea, or wine with meals or directly after.
- By not taking Calcium supplements with meals or soon after.
A few examples of iron-rich meals:
- Whole-wheat spaghetti with tomato sauce and a green salad with lemon-tahini-dressing.
- Oats with flax seeds, cacao (nibs), berries, pumpkin seeds, and a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice.
- Chickpea curry with dried fruits and fresh herbs.
- Quinoa Salad with fresh vegetables (broccoli, bell peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes), beans, sunflower seeds, and parsley served with fresh lemon juice and topped with sesame.
- Lentil Burger with fresh vegetables (tomatoes, arugula, onion) and potatoes as a side.
- As a snack: bell pepper sticks with hummus.
Here are more amazing iron-rich recipes you could try!
How often should you check your iron levels with a blood test?
In general, it is sufficient to get your iron supply tested once or twice a year. However, if you have a diagnosed deficiency or have been deficient in the past, it may be a good idea to get a test done more frequently. Please talk to your doctor about specific recommendations.
The most reliable parameter for detecting a deficiency is ferritin/serumferritin, which shows how much iron is stored in your body. This tells you how well you are supplied with iron for a longer period of time.
Other parameters only measure how much iron was in your blood at the time it was drawn. So if you tend to not get enough iron but the day before your blood test you eat an iron-rich meal, the results would show that you are well supplied with iron, although on any other day the results would show you are deficient.
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency is very serious because it can lead to anemia. As a result, not enough oxygen can be transported into cells. If the deficiency is severe, it may cause arrhythmia or, at worst, heart failure.
Symptoms of iron deficiency can be:
- Trouble concentrating
- Uncommonly strong fatigue
- Headaches and dizziness
- Being out of breath quickly
- Dry skin / dry hair
- Cold hands and feet
- Increased infections
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Reduced exercise capacity
How much iron is too much?
Consuming more than the recommended amounts of iron can be harmful. In Europe, there is no defined upper intake level. In the USA, it is recommended that children take in no more than 40 mg and grown-ups no more than 45 mg per day.
Too much iron can cause cell damage because iron acts as a free radical. Free radicals can promote aging, DNA-damage as well as chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Diabetes Mellitus Typ II, and neurological illnesses.
Moreover, excessive iron intake can disrupt the copper and zinc metabolism and damage the colon. In extremely high doses, iron can be poisonous.
Symptoms of an oversupply can be throwing up, diarrhea as well as kidney and liver damage.
Should you take an iron supplement?
Because iron can act as a free radical, you should only take a supplement if you have a diagnosed deficiency and consulted your doctor.
When was the last time you had your iron levels checked? Is it time for you to schedule an appointment? 😉