Why do we need iron?
Iron keeps a lot of essential processes rolling along happily in your body - starting with your blood. Iron is a central component of the proteins haemoglobin and myoglobin, both of which are responsible for transporting oxygen around the body.
Iron is also required for the function of numerous proteins, including enzymes and cytochromes involved in cellular energy production and detoxification pathways. Simply put, it gives you your get-up-and-go.
Iron is also required also has a role in the metabolism of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which means that iron is an essential ingredient for keeping your mood regulated.
So, it sounds like we all need iron pretty badly. But many people, particularly young women, are struggling to meet their body’s requirements. And here’s why:
- Inadequate dietary intake of iron - we’re looking at YOU, weeknight Uber-Eaters and ‘coffee-for-breakfasters’! A lack of nutritious meals is right up there as the main cause of iron deficiency
- Heavy periods
- Reduced iron absorption from the gut, relating to a medical condition such as Crohn’s disease or undiagnosed Coeliac disease
- Pregnancy, when iron requirements dramatically increase
- Regular strenuous exercise; long-distance runners are at particular risk due to the destruction of red blood cells that occurs with repetitive heel strikes against hard pavement
- Frequent blood donations
Symptoms of iron deficiency:
- Low energy levels
- Feeling exhausted during exercise
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Sensitivity to cold temperatures
- Frequent headaches
- Hair loss
- Pale skin
- Impaired memory and concentration
- Low mood / depression
- Frequent colds
As you can see, being low in iron can affect your life profoundly - impairing your mood and your body functions. And while popping an iron tablet might sound like an easy way to up your intake, getting your iron from food is always preferable. Of course, if you’re trying to do that on a plant-based diet, then it’s important to understand the types of iron your body needs and how best to promote its absorption.
Haem vs. non-haem iron
There are two types of dietary iron: haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is only found in animal-based foods (including meat, chicken, eggs, and fish), whereas non-haem iron is found in both animal and plant-based foods. This discussion will focus on dietary non-haem iron for people on vegan and vegetarian diets. Compared to haem iron, less non-haem iron from plant-based foods is absorbed from the gut, but a number of factors can boost its absorption, including:
- Vitamin C: found in foods such as capsicum, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, oranges, kiwi fruit, Brussels sprouts
- Beta-carotene (pro-Vitamin A) from orange and yellow vegetables such as pumpkin, sweet potato and carrots
- Fermented vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut, kimchi)
- Lysine, an amino acid found in legumes
Just as non-haem iron absorption can be enhanced, a number of dietary factors can also inhibit the absorption of iron from plant foods. The main inhibitors of non-haem iron absorption are phenolic compounds found in coffee and tea (black and green), so avoid getting your caffeine fix with meals – 2 hours either side of meal is fine.
The top plant-based sources of iron:
- Legumes, including beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils
- Soy foods, including tofu and tempeh
- Green leafy vegetables, particularly spinach and silverbeet
- Nuts, particularly cashews
- Seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds
- Whole grains, particularly amaranth, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, and rolled oats
- Dried fruit, particularly dried apricots and dates
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals, such as Weet-Bix
- Dark chocolate
- Wheat germ
Lastly, don't self-diagnose iron deficiency! If you're feeling tired, please see your GP and request a blood test before buying a bottle of iron supplements. Fatigue could be related to any number of things, e.g. lack of sleep, or other nutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin B12.
Just 2 tsp of Activated Nutrients Daily Superfood for Women contains 2.7mg iron sourced from whole plant foods, which is 15% of the Recommended Dietary Intake for iron for a woman, and the same amount of iron found in 1 cup of cooked chickpeas!