How do you ensure you're getting adequate levels of iron on a plant based diet? As someone who has had a history of low iron levels, I am always concerned that I am eating adequate levels of Iron. I have gradually been moving towards a more plant based diet and generally only eat meat once or twice a week, mainly because I feel so much better when I eat this way.
Iron is an essential mineral for development and growth and is used to form Haemoglobin which is used to transports oxygen to all parts of the body. Iron is also required for the efficient functioning of the immune system. When Iron levels are low it can lead to a condition called Anaemia which results in feelings of fatigue and weakness. So if your Iron levels run low you are going to start to feel pretty lethargic and will be much more susceptible to that bug going around.
There is no doubt that the easiest source of Iron for the body to absorb is in the form of meat (this is called Heme Iron) but there are many non-Heme sourced options that are actually central to most plant based diet recipes. Pulses including chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and tofu are all excellent sources of non-Heme iron. Also, sprouted beans and seeds such as aduki beans, alfalfa and sunflower seeds. Green leafy vegetables including spinach, broccoli, cabbage and the ever trendy kale also contain Iron. Nuts (in particular almonds and cashews) and dried fruit (especially apricots and dates) are also good sources of iron.
However, it is important to remember that plant based Iron is a littler harder for the body to absorb, however, this can be significantly helped by consuming Iron in combination with a source of vitamin C. This can actually increase the rate of adsorption by as much as 3 times. An easy way to do this would be adding a lemon juice and olive oil dressing on your spinach salad. If you add some sweet peppers and tomatoes to your salad you have added in a bit more vitamin C on top too!
The current recommended daily value for Iron is 14mg, this value is for women who require slightly more daily Iron intake then men whose daily requirement is 10mg a day.
Liver which is often cited as a superior form source of iron contains 6.40 mg per 100g. Pumpkin seeds surprisingly contain 8.82mg per 100g. So, while you are unlikely to eat 100g of pumpkin seeds in one go, it does show the benefit of the tablespoon thrown into your morning porridge or onto a yoghurt during the day. An 200g serving of lean grilled sirloin steak contains 3.84mg of Iron while one cup of boiled black beans actually contains 4.56mg! So a vegetable and bean chilli can be an excellent nutritious, delicious and Iron rich meal.
An example of a dish that I cook very often is a comforting Dahl made with red split lentils (1 cup of boiled lentils containing 6.8mg of Iron as well as protein) and with added vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms (morel mushrooms have the highest levels of iron so definitely worth getting when they are available) and some spinach (180g spinach contains 6.4 mg Iron). So you can see how by eating a wide variety of vegetable and pulses you can easily ensure that your body is getting adequate levels of Iron from a non-heme sources.
And as for that last minute couple of tablespoons of parsley you throw on top of a dish, well this humble herb is surprisingly another great source of iron (2 tablespoons giving 0.47mg) so definitely worth finishing off your dishes with a sprinkling of this on top.
And the best news of all? Dark chocolate (70%min) actually contains very high levels of Iron (100g containing 11.9mg). While it's not a great idea to eat an entire bar of chocolate, a couple of squares of this will add to your daily required intake giving you an extra 2.38mg. So for once your treat is really doing you good !
Print out the charts above and use them to occasionally check your meal for iron content. You'd be surprised how it naturally adds up throughout your day.
Here are some suggestions on how you can incorporate plant based iron into your diet.
Iron Content: 3mg per 1 cup
Uses: swap rice with quinoa in rice dishes for some extra protein or use them in risottos. Cook up a batch and add to salads throughout the week. It can also be used instead of oats as a quinoa porridge. I’ve even come across it used in raw peanut and date flapjacks or as the flour substitute in pizzas!
Iron Content: 1.7mg per ½ cup
Uses: oats have so many uses! Start your day with a hot bowl of porridge, make an overnight bircher muesli or a batch of granola to sprinkle on them. Add to your smoothies to thicken it and make it more filling. Make a batch of flapjacks to snack on, sweet or even better savour! Use them to replace breadcrumbs in recipes for falafels or veggie burgers. Oats can also be used as a substitute for flour in baking. Make some oat flour in your food processor and experiment with your next bake, start with a half and half substitution until you get the feel for how it behaves in baking.
Iron Content: 6.8mg per 1 cup
Uses: add into soups, curries and stews to make them more filling. Cook up a batch and use them in salads, falafel and veggie burgers throughout the week. For a quick cupboard dinner cook up a pot of lentils and add a lovely runny poached egg, a handful of fresh herbs and a dollop of hummus if you have some.
CHICKPEAS, KIDNEY BEANS, BUTTER BEANS, CANNELLINI BEANS, BLACK BEANS, HARICOT BEANS & MUNG BEANS
Iron Content: 5mg-7mg per 1 cup
Uses: to mix it up you can make hummus out of any of the above legume. Legume are the main source of protein in plant-based soups, stews and curries. Make a big hotpot for the weekend with a mix of different legume, a tin of tomatoes, some chopped veg and your favourite herbs and spices. You can also add them to salads and Buddha Bowls. Roasted chickpeas with a sprinkle of cumin make a great lunchbox snack too. I also use chickpea flour, often called gram flour, to make socca pancakes or pizzas.
SUNFLOWER, SESAME & PUMPKIN SEEDS
Iron Content: 8.82mg per ¼ cup
Uses: sprinkle on morning porridge, salads, soups, stews, curries, or just about anything to add a bit of crunchy texture and some protein. They are also the main ingredient in lots of energy balls recipes. I make my own tahini by lightly toasting the sesame seeds in the oven at 180oC for 10min and blending in a high powered blender until they become a creamy liquid. I use it as a base for salad dressings, hummus, dips and even add a dessert spoon to bircher muesli before soaking.
Iron Content: 8.4mg per 1 cup
Uses: add to stir fries, ramens, pasta dishes, risottos, omelettes or your Buddha Bowls. Mushrooms are a very versatile veg and are great for adding an earthy meaty flavour to veg burgers or just about any dish. They are also one of the few food sources of Vitamin D. Our daily requirement of Vitamin D is usually absorbed from the sun, but with the lack of outdoor activities, sunny days or applying suncreams daily (which is essential for skin protection) we’re most likely not getting enough Vitamin D.
Iron Content: 2.2mg per ¼ cup
Uses: add some dried apricots into your morning porridge, while it cook until they soften, and add a lovely sweet flavour to your porridge. Chop them up and add them to overnight bircher muesli or a batch of homemade granola. Add to a batch or flapjacks to naturally sweeten them and add a chewy texture to the crunchy oats. You can also use them as a natural sweetener in your morning smoothies.
Iron Content: 0.47mg per 2 tbsp
Uses: add to omelettes, roast veg, stir fries, veg burger or sprinkle on top of your Buddha Bowls. Make a parsley pesto as a change from the traditional basil version. Blend a handful up with 2:1 oil and vinegar, to drizzle over salads.
Iron Content: 6.4mg per 1 cup
Uses: fresh spinach works best in smoothies, you can freeze fresh spinach to use throughout the week. When it freezes it breaks up into little shards which makes it easier to store in your freezer and easier to fit in your blender! I also keep a bag of frozen spinach cubes to add to Buddha Bowls, stir-fries, soups, stews, curries or just about anything that needs an added bit of a green benefits.
Iron Content: 11.9mg per 100g
Uses: no need to explain the uses of chocolate! Just make sure to stick to anything over 70%, the higher the percentage the lower the amount of added sugar.