Iron: Here’s how to boost your intake on any diet!

Iron is among the most widespread deficiencies in the world. Millions of people struggle to reach their optimum intake daily, and the lack of the mineral leads to some pretty frustrating conditions which leave you feeling sleepy, tired, and faint.

sources of iron

What is Iron?

Iron is a mineral which has several functions in the body. It facilitates oxygen transport and is a critical element of DNA synthesis and the production of cell energy.

Symptoms of a deficiency include fatigue, paleness of the skin, brittle nails, cracks in the sides of the mouth, and frequent infections. Ongoing deficiency may lead to anaemia

Types of Iron

  • Heme: heme iron is derived from animal products and has high absorption rates (bioavailability).
  • Non-heme: non-heme iron is derived from plant-based products and has a lower absorption rate (bioavailability) compared to heme-sources.

You can get enough to meet your needs from non-heme sources following a well-balanced plant-based diet.

How much iron should you get per day?

Because of the lower absorption rate of the non-heme iron, we recommend that vegetarians and vegans eat 1.8x the amount recommended to those who consume animal products. The list below is an estimate of how much of it you should be getting daily:

  • Maximum: Stay below 45mg per day from food + supplement sources combined.
  • Men 19+ years: 8 mg (15 mg for vegetarians/vegans)
  • Women 19-50 years: 18 mg (32 mg for vegetarians/vegans)
  • Women 51+ years: 8 mg (15 mg for vegetarians/vegans)
  • Pregnant women 19-50 years: 27* mg (49* mg for vegetarians/vegans)
  • Breastfeeding women 19-50 years: 9 mg (16 mg for vegetarians/vegans)

* Pregnant women who are vegan or vegetarian should consult with a medical professional regarding their nutritional needs. 

Absorption

Inhibitors

Phytates: these are “anti-nutrients” which adhere to minerals in our body and stop them from being absorbed. They are present in a variety of plant-based foods including vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts. Try not to avoid these foods, though. We do not recommend trying. You can enhance absorption with phytates by soaking and sprouting nuts, seeds and legumes before eating them.

Tea and Coffee: drinking teas and coffees with your meals will decrease the absorption rate in these foods. If you enjoy tea or coffee with your meals, try to drink them at least 30 minutes before or after your meal.

Enhancers

Vitamin C: Vitamin C increase the body’s inherent ability to absorb iron. Some vitamin C-rich foods are oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, kiwis, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, broccoli, and some green leafy vegetables. You should try to combine iron-rich foods with vitamin-c rich foods to get the most of your meals! For example, add berries to your oatmeal, enjoy spinach with oranges and naartjie in smoothies, or stir-fry some tofu with bell peppers and some broccoli.

Can vegans and vegetarians to get enough iron from food alone?

Everyone needs to ensure that they are consuming iron-rich food in each meal. Eating 1.8x more per day for vegetarians and vegans may sound complicated, but it takes the phytates that may interfere with absorption into account. If you’re generally consuming iron-rich plant-based foods with vitamin C, and drinking your tea, coffee and foods with phytates before or after iron-rich foods, you should be fine!

Be aware that vegans and vegetarians have lower levels stored in their bodies. When stores are low, our bodies absorb more iron from foods. Low stores aren’t concerning, as long as you’re consistently consuming a variety of iron-rich foods.

Anaemia

30% of the world’s population has anaemia. Iron deficiency is the most significant cause of anaemia, but it is not the only one. People may become anaemic as a result of other long-standing health issues irrespective of intake through the diet.

High-Risk People

  • People who menstruate: this group has menstrual blood and iron losses that can reach up to 50mg per cycle.
  • Pregnant Women: there is a massive increase in their needs during this time due to the rapid growth of the placenta and baby.
  • Athletes: We generally recommend a higher requirement due to increased oxygen demands and more significant losses.
  • Other: other people that should be aware of their daily requirements include people with medical conditions leading to chronic blood loss, like ulcers and those who have blood donours.

Iron Supplements

If you’re not sure whether you need supplements, feel free to book a consultation with me and we can see what your body needs in order to function optimally. I offer a custom supplementation service, which combines the specific nutrients you need in one daily dose.

For those who are diagnosed with anaemia through a blood test, medical professionals often recommend supplements to resolve the issue. Once you reach an acceptable level, you can maintain your iron levels by eating iron-rich foods combined with foods rich in Vitamin C. 

Types of Supplements

  • General supplements: if you need supplements, please see a medical doctor for a prescribed dosage and duration. The amount required is always case-specific, and incorrect doses can be dangerous.
  • Multivitamins: these can contain iron, so be sure to check the amounts when calculating your total intake.
  • Fortification: certain countries fortify commonly eaten foods with iron. In some countries, products like flour, pasta and breakfast cereals have added iron. 

What happens when you take too much Iron?

Consuming too much can have several unfavourable health consequences:

  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • vomiting and nausea
  • increased risk of diseases like heart disease
  • dysfunction in the liver
  • higher production of free radicals and oxidative damage

It’s not likely that you would overload if you’re getting it from plant-based sources because you can control the non-heme iron absorption. Taking supplements, on the other hand, increases the risk of overloading, so we generally recommend consistent consumption of iron-rich foods for long-term maintenance of your levels. 

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