So here at Miss Bliss we love all things health and wholefoods and I am so happy to be sharing this blog with you about how to maximise your iron intake on a plant based diet. Christie Johnson from The Fit Nut Kitchen shares with us insightful tips on the A - Z of iron. If you are after more plant based tips check out our blogs on howw to make your own Hemp Milk and how to increase your calcium intake.
Do you suffer from constant fatigue? Rely on multiple coffees a day? Do you feel lethargic during exercise? Or find yourself getting sick often?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may need to boost your iron intake.
With the rise in popularity of the plant-based diet, it is important to know and understand what nutrients our body may be missing out on, and why we need them. One nutrient that is extremely important, and that can be difficult to consume adequate amounts with a plant-based diet if unaware, is iron.
What is iron?
Iron is a vital mineral which plays a role in red blood cell production by helping carry oxygen around the body to working muscles and organs. Iron is also involved with maintaining a strong healthy immune system and building strong muscles.
If we do not consume enough iron, it may eventually lead to iron deficiency or iron deficiency anaemia – a term many young women may be familiar with. Over 1 million Australians are at risk of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia, with women 2.5 times more likely to be at risk than men, due to blood loss during menstrual cycles. Another risk factor is large amounts of exercise (particularly lots of running), as iron stores deplete faster due to the rate of foot striking, and require greater repair of muscles.
How much iron do I need, and what foods contain iron?
Daily requirements vary, depending on age, gender and level of exercise:
• 18mg for adult women
• 8mg for adult men
• 15mg for teenagers (both female and male)
• 27mg for pregnant women
To reach our recommended requirements, I don’t expect you to pull out your notes each time you go to eat, calculating how much iron you’re consuming – that’s no fun and who has time for that anyway?!
It’s much easier to know what range of foods contain adequate amounts of iron, aiming to include these in your everyday life. But nothing is ever simple – did you know there are different kinds of iron in foods, which affects how much the body can absorb? These are known as haem iron and non-haem iron. Sorry to confuse you! Hopefully this helps.
Haem iron foods: have a great bioavailability (AKA more iron is absorbed easily). These include:
• Red meats
• Tuna and snapper
• Eggs (not as much as the above but it all adds up!)
Non-haem iron: have a lower bioavailability (AKA less iron is absorbed easily). These include:
• Kidney beans, chick peas,
• Dark green leafy veg – ie. Silverbeet, spinach
• Peanuts (Yep, another excuse to eat more peanut butter!)
• Other nuts such as cashews, almonds
• Fortified cereals – Weet BixTM, Sultana BranTM, All BranTM (just be aware of the added sugar content in other cereals! I’d recommend Weet Bix thoughTM – no added sugars)
• Dried apricots
How do I maximise my iron absorption?
If you’re considering, or already adopting a plant-based lifestyle, you need to ensure you are incorporating enough non-haem iron foods and maximising the absorption of them in order to maximise your daily intake.
Now these few tips and tricks may seem to make things more confusing, but I promise it’s more simple and easier than you think.
1. Add “iron enhancers” to your non-haem sources:
Iron enhancers increase the availability of iron during digestion, meaning more can be absorbed (YAY!). Ascorbic acid (AKA Vitamin C) is the “superfood” when it comes to iron. It is particularly important for those with low ferritin or haemoglobin levels.
I love using the following sources of vitamin C to maximise absorption:
• Orange juice with fortified cereal for breakfast
• Citrus salad dressing on your leafy greens
• Including a variety of colourful veg to your main meals (especially sweet potato, radish, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, broccoli)
2. Avoid eating your iron-rich foods with “iron competitors”
Due to the molecular make-up of nutrients, some compete for absorption when consumed together as they are absorbed via the same pathway – meaning there is not enough room for both at the same time.
For iron, its biggest competitor is calcium. If we consume large amounts of calcium-rich foods (AKA dairy products) with smaller amounts of iron (think milk on Weet-bixTM) it is likely the calcium contained in the milk will take priority over iron.
Therefore to avoid this, try consume dairy products at separate times (preferably 1-2 hours after iron consumption).
Now I know this can be tricky, and I’m not saying don’t have milk with fortified iron cereal – more that it is important to consume iron-rich foods across the whole day (and mix it up each day) to ensure small amounts of iron from each food will be absorbed, helping meet your targets!
3. Avoid consuming tannins with iron-rich foods
Tannins (compounds found in black and herbal teas) and compounds found in coffee can inhibit the absorption of iron. Therefore, like calcium, it’s important to try not consume your tea and coffee with meals, but rather at least 1 hour before or after. This will help the body absorb as much iron as it can.
As a young female triathlete, I have had my own experiences with iron deficiency and understand how easy it can be not to address the issue immediately. And as a dietitian, I want to remove any confusion around iron deficiency and support those who need it by providing the correct information. I could talk about iron for days, but I think I would make you more confused and stressed about what you should be eating and when – which is not what I am about!
So, to make it simple:
• Include a variety of iron-rich sources each day which are appropriate for you: lean meats, eggs, nuts, peanut butter, kidney beans, chickpeas, tuna, leafy greens.
• Don’t consume calcium-rich foods with main meals (milk, yoghurt, cream in curries, large amounts of cheese)
• Try drink your teas and coffees ~1 hour before or after meals
• Add colour (fruits, veggies, citrus dressings) to your meals for vitamin C to help enhance your uptake
• Enjoy food and get creative!
Most importantly, if you do feel that you are suffering, or at risk of iron deficiency, I do recommend you speak with your GP or an Accredited Practicing Dietitian to arrange a simple blood test and strategize how best you can maximise your iron intake. Testing iron regularly (every 3-6 months) is very beneficial, especially if you are female, following a plant-based diet, or are undertaking large amounts of exercise.
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR | CHRISTIE JOHNSON
I am an enthusiastic Nutritionist (soon to be Dietitian and Exercise Scientist) who lives and breathes all things food and fitness. I am also an Australian Age-group Triathlete, so I understand first hand the role nutrition and exercise plays in our lives. I believe in a holistic, individualised approach to health, and love helping people build their skills, knowledge and confidence to achieve their potential.
IG - @thefitnutkitchen