I told him that I know some vegans elite triathletes that are doing just fine (maybe even better than us “omnivores”). However, they are very conscious about getting all the iron an athlete’s body requires.
Fact is, being meat, fish and poultry the greatest sources of iron, if you take those foods out of the nourishment equation one needs to be extremely careful to find other sources of iron.
Iron, why we need it...
Iron is crucial for all body cells. It’s necessary for function and synthesis of the hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all tissues the body.
But that’s not it, iron is a key component in energy production, to be precise for the so-called oxidation-reduction reactions. Also, it’s involved in the synthesis of DNA, and plays an important part in immune function.
Last but not least, iron is an active component in the brain, and it’s necessary to synthesize a bunch of neurotransmitters and collagen.
This gives you an idea how dangerous is to suffer from anemia, which happnes when there is not enough iron in the red blood cells.
Anemia can be caused by several factors such as pregnancy, blood loss, poor iron absorption by the body and, of course, a diet low in iron (such as a vegan diet risks to be).
There are many symptoms for iron deficiency, the most common ones are lack of energy, extreme fatigue, feeling of weakness, frequent headaches, and a general tiredness.
However, in order to assess whether one has anemia a blood test is needed.
Although iron is found in a variety of different foods and supplements, its availability to the body varies significantly. In general, iron is not readily absorbed by the body.
Food iron is presented to the body either as:
- HEME which is found only in animal products such as meat, fish, and poultry; or
- NON-HEME, which is found primarily in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains.
The distinction is extremely important because whether the iron in food is HEME or NONHEME has a major influence on the amount of this mineral our body is able to absorb.
HEME iron is absorbed much more easily than NON-HEME iron. That’s the reason why vegetarians and vegans must be much more careful than “omnivores” when it comes to iron intake, because the body will be able to absorb NON-HEME iron only partially.
In other words, HEME iron is much more readily available to the body than NON-HEME iron. And that’s why the quantities of daily iron intake varies greatly between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
How much iron?
In fact, according to the latest health guidelines set by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Science the Recommended Dietary Allowance is:
- 8 mg/day for non-vegetarian men and non-vegetarian post-menopausal women. And, 18mg/day for non-vegetarian pre-menopausal women.
- 14 mg/day for vegetarian men and 33 mg/day for vegetarian women.
While, the upper level of intake should not exceed 45mg/day. Remember, too much iron will be highly toxic for the body. So get the right amount, and that it!
Best sources of NON-HEME iron
Since in this post we want to focus on the NON-HEME iron, the following chart includes the best sources of iron (other than meat, fish, and poultry).
Dark chocolate, unsweetened
Sun dried tomatoes
Lima beans, cooked
Swiss chard, cooked
Kidney beans, cooked
Black beans, cooked
Pinto beans, boiled
Turnip greens, cooked
Black-eyed peas, cooked
Brussels sprouts, cooked
Bok choy, cooked
Bread, whole wheat
Green beans, cooked
Rice, brown, cooked
Substances that interacts with iron absorption
However, the long tale of iron is far from over.
Because there are several other factors that play an important role when it comes to NON-HEME iron absorption.
The following factors will greatly decrease NON-HEME iron absorption by the body:
1) Consuming large amounts of tea or coffee with a meal as the precious polyphenols will actually bind with the iron.
2) Excess consumption of high fiber foods (or bran supplements). In this case, the phytates will inhibit iron absorption.
3) High intake of calcium. If you’re taking a calcium supplement do it not close to your main meals!
4) There is also some evidence that soy proteins might inhibit the absorption but the studies are just preliminary and further evidence is necessary.
If you want to increase iron absorption from NON-HEME foods you can:
1) get a lot of Vitamin C alongside NON-HEME foods (e.g., oranges, grapefruits, kiwis, tomatoes, broccoli, lemons, etc.)
2) eat together HEME and NON-HEME foods (needless to say it, this won’t work for vegetarians/vegans)
3) cook NON-HEME foods in an iron skillet or pot. I know that this might sound like crazy but there are several studies backing this.
Getting the correct daily Iron intake is a serious thing. You don’t want too few but, surely, you don’t want to get too much either, as this might result in toxicity.
We all know that meat and fish are great sources of iron, however vegetarians and vegans should not despair. To the contrary, an eating regimen rich in greens, legumes and dried fruits will do just fine and they absolutely will not risk to end up with some sort of iron deficiency.
They just have to be a bit more careful but with the right knowledge there’s no risk at all.
Our body in an incredible machine it can take us anywhere, as long as we give him the right “fuel”.
The Iron You