Iron for vegetarians (or anyone who likes plants)

Legumes a good source of iron

One of the more difficult nutrients in a plant based diet is iron, partly because it is more difficult to absorb and partly because women in particular may have higher needs at different stages of their life. In this blog we will look at requirements at different stages, good plant sources and factors that affect absorption.

How much iron do you need ?

Requirements change depending on your age and stage, but also whether there are other stressors which may affect your needs. For women who are having heavy periods extra iron is often needed. For athletes who are doing intensive training they have a higher need for iron as the training stimulates production of red blood cells.

Generally the recommended iron intake for adults is 8mg for men and 18mg for women. For women this increases to 27mg during pregnancy. Post menopausal women drop to 8mg a day the same as men. Babies and toddlers have similar requirements regardless of gender but typically around 8-11mg a day depending on the stage.

Good plant sources of iron

  1. Nuts depending on the type are good sources of iron. Pistachio’s have 14mg of iron per 100g and are about four times higher than almonds, brazil or cashew nuts. Nut butters could be a good way to increase iron in the diet.
  2. Seeds particularly pumpkin, sesame, hemp and flaxseed. Two tablespoons average between 1 – 1.4mg of iron per serve.
  3. Legumes such as beans, peas , chickpeas and soybeans with soybeans topping the list at 8.8mg of iron per cup. Legumes are also an important source of protein for vegetarians so they have multiple benefits.
  4. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, chard and kale often have between 2.5-6mg per cup of cooked vegetables. Included in a dish with legumes it gets easier to meet your recommended intake.
  5. Potatoes but the iron is under the skin so make sure you scrub the skin before cooking and don’t peel it off. A large potato has around 3mg and sweet potato a little less.
  6. Oyster and white mushrooms are good sources, however shitake and portobello have little iron content. The varieties noted above have around 3mg per 100g.
  7. Olives hold around 3mg per 100g .

How do I digest iron easily ?

Most people seem to know that having foods containing Vitamin C at the same time as eating iron sources improves their digestion, leafy green vegetables are a good source of iron as they usually contain both. Other factors which may impact absorption are consuming dairy products or tea at the same time as the iron source.

Dairy products may impact absorption of iron due to the high calcium content, which in some studies has been shown to lower absorption of the iron. This may not be an issue if your levels are adequate as its only reducing absorption however if you are suffering from iron deficiency it might be best to have your capuccino at least 30 minutes away from your meal.

Tea is high in tannins which constrict the mucous membranes lining the stomach. If consumed with meals it may limit your absorption of nutrients such as the non-heme iron from plants significantly, by up to 62% in one study. Again enjoying your tea away from your iron containing meal is probably fine.

Christine Pope is a practicing naturopath and nutritionist who is based at Elemental Health at St Ives. Appointments can be made through the website at www.elementalhealth.net.au or by calling 8084 0081.

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