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Getting enough iron on a plant-based diet
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INCLUDE IRON RICH PLANT-BASED FOODS IN YOUR DIET The best plant-based sources of iron are: soybeans, lentils, pumpkin seeds, spinach, chickpeas and kale.

Pair iron rich foods with Vitamin C sources Vitamin C rich foods facilitate iron absorption. Pairing iron rich foods with vitamin C sources will increase absorption up to sixfold. Great Vitamin C sources include: citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, broccoli, red pepper, kale and strawberries.

Pair iron-rich foods with beta-carotene Foods rich in beta-carotene increase iron absorption. Pair iron rich foods with foods such as roasted carrots, pumpkin and sweet potato.

Cook with cast iron Cast iron pans will contribute to dietary iron, especially when used to cook acidic foods like tomato sauces.

Leave the coffee until after breakfast Tannin rich drinks - like tea, coffee & wine - inhibit iron absorption. Drink tea & coffee away from meals.   

why do we need iron?

Iron is an ‘essential mineral’ which means you have to get enough from your diet to ensure good health. Amongst other things, we need it for:

  • Transporting oxygen in our bodies.
  • Removing toxic carbon dioxide from our tissues.
  • Helping our immune system to function properly, keeping us safe from attack and illness.

Dietary iron exists in two different forms:

  • heme-iron – found in meat
  • non-heme iron – found in plants.

Non-heme iron, the iron found in plants, is less readily absorbed.

This is why the daily recommended intake for people following a plant-based diet is much higher than for people who eat an omnivorous diet (almost 2 times as much).

Non-heme iron isn’t as readily absorbed by the body as it’s tightly bound in plants by substances called ‘phytates’ and ‘oxalates’. These substances ‘hold on’ to the iron.

When we eat foods containing non-heme iron, our digestive systems can’t break down the phytate and oxalate complexes.

As a result, our bodies are less able to absorb the iron that we need. This means that so much of the plant-based iron in our food can make it’s way through our gut without being absorbed.

a common deficiency
Woman with plant-based Drink

Iron deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies in the world. Women of child-bearing age and small children are especially at risk. Because iron is lost during menstruation, women need to be especially careful that they are getting good sources of iron in their diets.

Some symptoms of iron deficiency are:

  • Feeling tired and lacking energy 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Chest pains or an irregular heartbeat.

As always, if you think you might have a deficiency, you should consult with a doctor or medical professional. 

The rest of this article will give you a number of steps you can take today to increase both the amount of iron in your diet and your body’s ability to absorb it.

hack 1: eat foods rich in vitamin C

Studies show that eating iron rich foods in combination with at least 50 mg of vitamin C can increase iron absorption between 4 to 6 times. Try eating a kiwifruit with your breakfast, or adding a red pepper to your spinach salad.

This seems to be especially important if you have a drink which contains tannins with your meal. That includes having tea or coffee with breakfast and even wine with a meal. If you can’t face having these drinks separately to your food – make sure you include a good source of vitamin C.

hack 2: eat iron rich food with beta carotene

Although not as effective as vitamin C, foods rich in beta-carotene, like carrots, sweet potato and red peppers, also help to increase the absorption of iron.

Your body uses the beta-catotene from your diet and converts it into vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant. You should make sure your getting plenty of beta-carotene on your plant-based diet.

Tip: switch out baked potatoes for sweet potatoes and try to have a carrot juice with breakfast (maybe instead of coffee or tea which can block iron absorption).

Hack 3: eat soaked, sprouted & fermented foods

Phytates in plants bind up the iron (and other minerals) and make it less available for your body to absorb. You can break down the phytates by soaking, sprouting and fermenting foods. The fermentation process can break down phytates by up to 90%. This will increase the amount of iron that your body can then absorb.

Try swapping your regular bread for sourdough, which is made with fermented dough. It means that more nutrients will be available for your body to absorb (and many people prefer the taste too!)

hack 4: cook in cast iron pots and pans

Believe it or not, when foods are prepared in cast iron pans, they will increase the iron content of the food that you cook in them.

In particular, acidic foods, like tomato-based pasta sauces or soups, increase the amount of iron that is released into your food.

hack 5: avoid coffee, tea and wine with meals

This might not come as welcome news, but tannin rich foods, like coffee, tea & red wine, have been shown to significantly reduce your absorption of iron.

When eating an iron rich meal, like spinach at breakfast, try to wait to have a coffee or tea until after the meal. Try to leave a gap of at least 45 minutes. Try having a carrot & lemon juice instead (the beta-carotene and vitamin C will actually increase iron absorption).

If you can’t face eating without tea, coffee or wine – then try to have a good source of vitamin C at the same time as this will compensate to some degree for the lack of absorption caused by those tannins.

hack 6: don't create competition

Iron and other minerals, like calcium, are absorbed into your body through the same places – known as absorption sites.

Good plant-based food will naturally contain a number of different minerals.

However, if you are taking any mineral supplements for any reason, try to have these away from your iron-rich meal.

Example: If you are taking a calcium supplement, don’t have it at the same time as you eat a good source of iron – otherwise the minerals will compete with each other, and you will decrease absorption.

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duncan turner
duncan turner

Duncan's mission is to support the next wave of plant-based eaters! His background in entrepreneurship, working with NGOs & in development has brought Thrive Republic to life. (His recipe tasting skills are second to none too!) He's focused on helping people to bring energy to their lives, while doing their bit to protect the future of the planet and all of its inhabitants.


Interaction of vitamin C and iron:

Is there a physiological role of vitamin C in iron absorption:

How important is dietary iron bioavailability?

Effect of physical exercise and vitamin C on absorption of ferric sodium citrate.

Vitamin C and iron are partners in crime in iron deficiency anaemia its potential role in the elderly

Iron absorption from bread in humans:

Prolonged Fermentation of Whole Wheat Sourdough Reduces Phytate Level and Increases Soluble Magnesium:

The effect of tea on iron absorption.

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