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How To Get Enough Iron From Plants

Can we really get enough Iron from just plants?

This is a very popular question when it comes to eating whole food plant based/ vegan. Unfortunately, a simple google search or asking your doctor can give you a TON of misleading & contradicting information.

The short answer: YES! We absolutely can get enough iron from plants!

Eating mostly whole food plant based actually maximizes your intake of almost every nutrient!

This includes: more fiber, more vitamin A, more vitamin C, more vitamin E, more B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, folate), as well as more calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron.

In fact, many of the nutrients that are abundant in plant based foods are the ones most Americans typically aren't getting enough of—like vitamins A, C, E, fiber, calcium, magnesium and potassium. And on top of all that, when you avoid meat, you also eat fewer harmful substances like sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol!

Allow me to clarify some things for you...

How to get enough Iron from plants

First things first, compared to people who eat meat, vegans and vegetarians generally tend to eat more iron. However, iron from plants is not as efficiently absorbed as iron from meat.

The iron found in meat is called heme iron, which is a type of iron the body absorbs more easily. This is why most people assume meat is the better source.

The human body does not have a specific way to get rid of extra iron.

Because of this, our bodies control the amount of iron absorbed. Too much, your body starts to increase iron absorption. Too little, your body decreases iron absorption.

So when it comes to iron, more does not = better!

a graphic about plant based iron sources
Plant based sources of iron

Too much iron is called Iron Overload Disease. This typically happens when heme iron rushes through our stomach barrier, even if we already have too much in our system.

Too much iron is also linked to metabolic syndrome, heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, arthritis, gout and other serious medical conditions.

Iron in the form of supplements has been shown to increase oxidative stress in our bodies, similar to what heme iron does to us.

The best and safest sources of iron for humans are plant based.

Even if you are one of the many (1 in 30) menstruating women who lose more iron than you take in, which can lead to anemia. It's important to note that women who eat plant based diets do not appear to have higher rates of iron deficiency anemia!

With that said, all women of "childbearing age" should ensure they are getting enough iron.

The ability to absorb non-heme iron depends on the current iron balance in your body. Its impacted by absorption inhibitors phytates, polyphenols, calcium and proteins. AND absorption enhancers like ascorbic acid, muscle tissue, and non digestible carbohydrates.

Plant foods with the most iron include whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and green leafy vegetables. Please see the list above for some more examples.

Ascorbic acid aka vitamin C is the best way to enhance iron absorption for people eating whole food plant based.

Eating plant based sources of Iron with vitamin C rich foods like oranges, kiwi, guava, strawberries, mango, pineapple, cantaloupe, bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, kale and more help improve/increase iron absorption.

Additionally, there are some foods that block iron absorption. Those foods include coffee, black tea, camomile tea, wine, peppermint, cocoa, and turmeric.

"The amount of vitamin C in a single orange can enhance iron absorption as much as 3-6 fold, so those trying to boost their iron absorption should reach for some fruit instead of a cup of tea" -Michael Greger, M.D. F.A.C.L.M., How Not To Die

Chronic inflammation, obesity, deficiencies of riboflavin and vitamin A can also all cause iron deficiency through many avenues.

Tips to get the most out of plant based iron:

1. Eat plant based foods containing iron

beans, tofu, greens, oatmeal, quinoa, amaranth, dried fruits, olives, mushrooms, unpeeled potatoes, nuts (cashews, pine nuts, macadamias), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, hemp, flax seeds), dark chocolate, & fortified products like breads and cereals.

2. Eat food with ascorbic acid or vitamin C along with iron containing foods to increase absorption

citrus, pomegranate, tomatoes, cantaloupe, kiwi, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, papaya, berries, lychee, pineapple, mango, green leafy veggies, and guava. It's helpful to know that vitamin C degrades quickly with cooking and storage so do your best to eat those foods fresh or shortly after cooking to get the most vitamin C.

3. Eat a variety of dark leafy greens

The key here is VARIETY! Avoid solely relying on spinach for iron. Though it contains many healthful nutrients, the oxalates in spinach interfere with the absorption of iron. It's better to choose other dark leafy greens like kale, collard greens, arugula, mustard greens, etc. if you're specifically looking to increase your ability to absorb iron. 

4. Cook your food in cast iron with acid rich ingredients

Not only does a cast iron pan add delicious flavor to over time, but studies show that it also adds to your iron intake! Its important to not heat the pan too high though, especially if using vegetable oil. The oil, iron and high heat combine to make Trans fat which is highly linked to heart disease.

5. Avoid drinking coffee, tea and wine with meals

As I mentioned earlier, polyphenols and tannins in these drinks interfere with iron absorption to the point where they block it. Coffee, black tea, chamomile tea, wine, peppermint, cocoa, and turmeric are known to do this.

Don't just take my word for it!

For more about Iron and how it works in your body check out these quick videos from Michael Greger MD, FACLM:

I hope this helps!

Bookmark this page to come back to it whenever you need to spit some facts

& send to a friend who may not know about all of this :)


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