Vegetarian diet and all its variations (f.e. vegan) provides you with plenty of health benefits, if done correctly. When on this diet, you need to pay extra attention to the following vitamins, minerals and microelements to avoid their deficiency: calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient amount of protein.

This post is about iron.

The role of iron in the body

The most common and well-known function of iron is to transfer oxygen with the help of hemoglobin and myoglobin throughout our body to different organs. In addition, iron facilitates the work of many important enzymes (including those of our immune system), and has a role in thyroid hormone synthesis and amico acid metabolism.

How to get sufficient amount of iron?

Iron comes in two forms: heme iron from most animal products (such as meat and egg yolk) and non-heme iron from plant foods and dairy. Heme iron is more absorbable (15-30%) than non-heme iron (5-10%). This assumes that omnivores have better iron status. However, vegetarians who eat a varied and well-balanced diet don’t seem to be at any greater risk of iron deficiency than omnivores. A varied diet that is rich in wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, iron-fortified cereal products, and green leafy vegetables provides an adequate iron intake.

When on a plant-based diet, you can increase a non-heme iron absorption from your food by a wise combination of food ingredients on your plate. The dietary iron enhancers are:

  • vitamin C, from fresh fruits and vegetables
  • organic acids, such as: citric acid, from citrus fruits; malic acid, from many different fruits; lactic acid, from fermented foods; tartaric acid, mainly from grapes and banana’s; erythorbic acid (an antioxidant used in processed food).

 

On the other hand, iron absorption is decreased by:

  • phytic acids, found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. You can reduce the phytate content of your diet by soaking, sprouting, souring, or fermenting your whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes
  • polyphenols, found in unrefined plant foods. However, many polyphenol-rich foods also contain vitamin C, and citric, malic, or lactic acids, all of which enhance non-heme iron absorption
  • vegetable protein. As a vegetarian, you’d better include egg yolks as an animal protein to compensate the influence of vegetable protein and increase the absorption of plant iron. The vegans can’t do anything about it. So their best strategy would be to include lots of legumes in their diet; to soak, sprout, ferment, or sour all of the whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes; and to add lacto-fermented vegetables and a great variety of cabbages and other sources of vitamin C to enhance the non-heme iron absorption.

It is worth mentioning, that the overall long-term effect of enhancers and inhibitors of iron may be less important when the foods are eaten as part of a varied and well-balanced diet.

Besides, our body also contributes to iron absorption, depending on our iron status. The low iron stores increase the body’s need for iron and activate compensatory mechanisms to facilitate greater absorption of iron. To give you an example: iron absorption can be as low as 2–3% in people with good iron stores but as high as 14–23% in people with low iron stores.

Another important fact is that vegetarians typically have lower iron stores, as reflected in lower serum ferritin levels. Nevertheless, this might be a health advantage as lower serum ferritin levels are linked to improved insulin sensitivity and reduced risk of diabetes type 2.

How does an iron-rich plant-based diet look like?

If we put together a plant-based diet to maximize iron status, it would look like this:

  • starch mainly from sprouted legumes or potatoes. By the way, plant ferritin, found in soy and other legumes, is an easily absorbed source of iron (22–34%).
  • soaked, sprouted, soured, or fermented nuts, seeds, and whole grains
  • several cups of veggies (don’t forget to include dark green leafy vegetables and various types of cabbage); and
  • a couple servings of fresh fruit. Dried fruits (such as apricots, prunes and figs) could be fine as well.

 

What is the current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI)?

The current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for iron for vegetarians has been set 1.8 times higher than that for non-vegetarians. It comes from an average iron absorption from an omnivorous diet (18%) and from a plant-based diet (10%). However, this requirement is based on limited research, which has been unable to accurately measure adaptive absorption rates of non-heme iron in vegetarians.

Curious? HERE is the source

Tatsiana Haponava, PhD

a certified nutrition coach, educator and researcher with a PhD degree

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