Vegans are often depicted as pale, weak and anemic due to the lack of meat in our diet. But is iron deficiency really an issue on a plant-based diet? With the help of Dr. Michael Greger, we learn about the difference between heme and non-heme iron.
One of the most common stereotypes we vegans come up against is that of the weak, pale, iron-deficient anemic vegan. Dietary iron is strongly associated with meat consumption, particularly red meat, meaning the flesh of cows, pigs, lamb, and other animals. So what’s a vegan to do when it come to getting adequate iron levels? This is the fourth video post in my nutrient series with nutrition powerhouse Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org. So far, we’ve covered protein, omega fatty acids, and calcium. Let’s hear from Dr. Greger on the matter of iron in a plant-based diet.
For Dr. Greger’s full answer, be sure to watch the video above, but here are some select nuggets:
“People eating plant-based get more iron too but it’s the right type of iron–it’s non-heme iron. The iron in blood and muscles [meat], so called heme iron, is absorbed whether we need it or not, and iron is a double edged sword. It actually acts as a pro-oxidant. Too much of it can increase our risk for liver damage, and diabetes, and heart disease. … [If we don’t have] … enough of it though, we can’t make enough red blood cells, [and] we can become anemic.” [tweet this]
Dr. Greger says that our intestines regulate the absorption of non-heme iron (which is almost always plant-based), but heme iron (from meat) “slips through our intestine whether we have too much of it or not,” he says.
“Particularly with men, they’re actually risking having too much iron and causing extra oxidative stress. Women are less likely to suffer because they have, at least during reproductive age, monthly blood loss, and so can keep iron levels from getting too high. But one in twenty menstruating [women] have iron deficiency anemia and that’s the same for vegans, and omnivores, and vegetarians. Vegans don’t have higher rates.”
“Where do we get it [iron]? Beans and greens. … [A]lso dried fruits are a good source to get some of these minerals as well.” [tweet this]
I hope you enjoyed hearing from Dr. Greger on this topic. Be sure to watch the video for his full answer. As he pointed out, there are plenty of vegan sources of iron, beans and greens being excellent examples. And in fact, these are even better iron sources on a per calorie basis than meat.
For example, you would have to eat more than 1700 calories of sirloin steak (28 ounces) to get the same amount of iron as found in 100 calories of cooked spinach (2.5 cups). 100 calories cooked spinach yields 15.5mg iron and 1700 calories of sirloin steak yields 15.2mg.
One of the great advantages of a vegan diet is that it is high in vitamin C, which acts to markedly increase the absorption of non-heme iron by about 6-fold when eaten in combination with iron-containing foods. With many vegan foods, you get a double-whammy of naturally co-occurring iron and vitamin C, such as in broccoli and bok choy.
Other vegan iron sources include breads, cereals, and grains, quinoa, oatmeal, prune juice, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, raw or cooked mushrooms, baked potato, tofu, lentils, sunflower seeds, and cashews.
And just a safety note, as with animal-based heme iron, iron supplements can become toxic if you take too much. So if you are going to supplement, please do so under the care of a physician and get your levels checked regularly. But if you’re just eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, you’ll be getting all the iron you need and your body won’t absorb any excess.
It’s interesting how many nutrition and health issues you don’t have to worry about or manage when you’re not eating animals and their byproducts. It’s almost like our biology and physiology are telling us that we weren’t meant to eat them at all! *cough*
You can check out the video to see my iron intake from yesterday, the bulk of which came from lettuce and butternut squash. And it’s all non-heme iron so no worries about overdoing it. If you want to track your own iron intake, check out Cronometer to track your nutrition and activity. It’s totally free and an incredibly useful resource. As if that’s not enough awesome, they’re sponsoring this video post to help get this vital information out!
Be sure to click the links in this post to make your profile so they know that Bite Size Vegan sent you and that we vegans can pump some serious dietary iron. (Word play amuses me.) Kinda iron-ic, eh? (Okay it’s not at all ironic but I wanted to use that joke.)
I’d love to hear from you about this: If you’re vegan, have you had any issues with your iron levels or anemia? If you’re not vegan, is this a concern for you were you to go vegan? Let me know in the comments!
— Emily Moran Barwick