Mum of a Vegan – Iron Levels

The last couple of weeks I have talked about the issues concerning macronutrients particularly ensuring that your child has they right fats and protein when on a vegan diet.   For the next few weeks I am going to look at some of the vitamins and minerals that your vegan son or daughter may be lacking in. One of the big ones is iron.  Iron is an essential mineral and is a component of haemoglobin, that carries oxygen round the body to give you energy. The recommended daily intake of iron varies by age and gender. This is because too much iron is not good for you. Dose recommendations are:

  • 8mg in children aged 9-13 years
  • 11mg in teenagers aged 14-18 years
  • 18 mg in women  age 19-50 years
  • 8 mg in men 19-50 years, and 8 mg in all adults over 50 years.  

The difference between young women and men is to do with blood losses from menstruation.  Iron deficiency anaemia is associated with fatigue, weakness, light-headedness and shortness of breath.

Many plants do contain reasonable levels of iron.   Good sources include:

  • dark green leafy veg, such as collard, kale and spinach
  • beans, such as haricot, butter, pinto, black and soy
  • lentils
  • seeds including  pumpkin, sesame and sunflower
  • dried apricots
  • herbs such as thyme and parsley

Indeed, several studies have indicated that vegetarians and vegans may often consume more iron than meat eaters. However, as was the case for good oils the form the iron comes in varies between plant and animal sources, which can have a big effect on how available it is for the body to use.  There are 2 types of iron:

  • Haem iron – accounts for about half the iron in meat and fish
  • Non-Haem iron – accounts for the other half of iron in meat and fish and all the iron in plant foods, dairy and eggs.

The main difference between the two types of iron is that they are absorbed very differently.  Haem iron is more easily absorbed by the body (15-35%) than non-haem (2-20%). For non-haem iron certain factors play an important role. Vitamin C can increase non-haem iron absorption, while phytates  (found in high fibre foods), calcium and polyphenols in tea, coffee and red wine may inhibit absorption.

Including foods rich in vitamin C with meals containing iron can boost absorption significantly. The amount of vitamin C in eight strawberries or a 200ml glass of orange juice can increase iron absorption by 3-4-times. Try watercress salad with dates, pumpkin seeds and slices of orange, or beans on toast with a glass of orange juice.

Phytate (or phytic acid) is a substance found in unrefined wholegrains, seeds and pulses, which can bind to iron and reduce absorption. Phytates can be reduced by fermenting, cooking and sprouting, which can increase iron absorption by up to 60 per cent. Increasing the amount of time bread is fermented can help too, so sourdough bread can be a good option.  This is another reason why in some cases having tinned beans and lentils can be better than using dried options.

Polyphenols found in tea (including herbal teas), coffee, cocoa and red wine may bind to iron and reduce its absorption. If you are well, it is fine to have these drinks as a vegan, but the advice is to wait an hour after eating before consuming them.

Calcium may inhibit iron absorption, but again, research suggests that calcium has a limited effect and may be counteracted by vitamin C. This means you shouldn’t limit your intake as calcium is very important to many processes in the body. Simply avoid taking calcium supplements at the same time as food.

If you do need to supplement iron choose one that contains iron in an organic form to avoid constipation or other stomach issues and one that also contains vitamin C to help with iron absorption.   The one my son has is Biocare iron complex, which contains vitamin C, B2 and is in an organic malate form.

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