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What Vegans Need to Know About Iron

If you’re taking your first steps into the world of Veganism, you’ll know that adopting a plant-based diet can take some adjustment! Not only do you need to navigate the world of Vegan staples like tofu, lentils and quinoa, but you’ll also need to pay closer attention to your food choices to make sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals that Vegan diets sometimes lack. This includes iron.

Contrary to popular belief, you can get plenty of iron on a Vegan diet - but there are some things you should know.

What Is Iron and What Does It Do?

Iron is a mineral that contributes to the production of haemoglobin, which is a key protein in red blood cells. These are the cells we can thank for carrying oxygen around the body, including to our muscles.

Iron plays a vital role in transporting oxygen from the lungs to the parts of the body that need it, ensuring healthy muscle and tissue function. Iron also protects the body’s natural defences, boosts muscle endurance and helps to promote good quality sleep.

Currently, the NHS recommends aiming for a daily target of 8.7mg for adults over 18. However, women between the ages of 19-50 should aim for levels of 14.8mg a day to avoid iron deficiency.

What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Iron?

If your diet doesn’t contain enough iron, you could develop a condition called iron-deficiency anaemia. The major symptoms of anaemia include fatigue, dizziness and a lack of energy, but you might also experience:

● Heart palpitations

● Pale skin (which can be noticed in your face, gums and nails)

● Dry hair and itchy skin

● Brittle fingernails.

Some groups of people are more at risk of developing iron deficiency because of the following reasons:

● They lack iron in their diets (e.g. from following a plant-based diet)

● They are losing or have lost blood (e.g. through menstruation)

● They have problems absorbing iron (e.g. they have a low vitamin C intake).

Some of the major sources of iron come from red meat and other animal products, such as eggs, so Vegans tend to be more vulnerable to iron-deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiencies can also be more common throughout menstruation and pregnancy.

If you are at risk of developing iron deficiency, you may be advised to take iron supplements. Remember that not all supplements are Vegan, so be sure to double-check the ingredients list beforehand.

How to Boost Iron Intake With a Vegan Diet

You’ll be pleased to know that there are lots of delicious, iron-rich whole foods to enjoy as part of a healthy Vegan diet. Some of the main sources include:

● Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and tofu (from soybeans);

● Fruits such as apricots, figs and raisins;

● Nuts and seeds including cashews, linseed and chia seeds;

● Grains such as quinoa and brown rice;

● Leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale and spring greens.

A combination of these iron sources can be whipped up into delicious salads, curries, soups and stews or eaten as snacks between meals. Boosting your iron intake could be as simple as adding tofu to a salad or crushed cashews to a stir fry!

How to Boost Iron Absorption

Eating iron-rich sources alongside the right foods can help our bodies absorb iron more effectively. The best way to do this on a Vegan diet is to eat foods rich in non-heme iron (as opposed to heme iron, which is found in animal products) alongside foods rich in vitamin C.

There are lots of tasty and Vegan-friendly vitamin C sources, including citrus fruits (such as oranges and grapefruit), peppers, cabbages, strawberries and kiwis. These can also be added to meals, enjoyed on the side (such as in a glass of orange juice) or eaten as a snack.

Some foods, such as spinach, contain high levels of oxalic acid - something that actually prevents effective iron absorption in the gut. So, it’s even more important to incorporate vitamin C sources into your daily diet if you eat a lot of the green stuff.

Don’t Forget…

● Iron is necessary for muscle function and a healthy immune system.

● Vegan sources of iron include legumes, fruits and leafy green vegetables - but not spinach.

● For effective iron absorption, make sure to increase your vitamin C intake.

● Before donating blood, you will first need to undergo a haemoglobin (Hb) test to check that your Hb levels are high enough. As we need iron to produce Hb, passing this test indicates that your iron levels are above normal.

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