I don’t eat red meat, and I haven’t for nearly 3 years.  I don’t eat other animal foods either, but recent blood tests I ordered to measure how my nutritional plan was working for me showed that not only were my blood iron levels excellent, but I also had good iron storage levels (which can be lower in vegans).

Many people are iron deficient.  It’s the most common nutritional deficiency in the world.  Most people I’ve spoken to who find they are anaemic were committed meat eaters at the time they become iron-deficient.  They can’t understand why this happened since they regularly eat iron-rich red meat.

I thought some of you may like to know where I get enough iron to stay full of beans.

Too Little Iron

The first sign of iron deficiency is usually fatigue.  Unfortunately, by the time a person experiences fatigue, their ferritin levels (that’s how iron is stored in the body – as ferritin) are already empty, and now the blood levels are low too.  That’s why it takes people some time to crawl back from iron deficiency – the ferritin tanks have to be filled up also.

This fatigue isn’t the main problem though – anaemia impairs work performance and makes us irritable; it makes exercise almost impossible and you feel cold. You may have headaches and look pale.  If you’re pregnant, it can result in premature birth, a low birth weight baby and more risks for the mother.

All because there isn’t enough iron to carry sufficient oxygen to the cells.

Can you get too much iron?

Excess iron 'rusts'

Excess iron ‘rusts’

Not getting enough iron poses serious health problems – but so does getting too much iron.

The problem is that iron is a pro-oxidant – which means that it oxidises, which is a kind of rusting which leads to inflammation.  This places us at greater risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.  We now have reliable evidence of this.

Too much iron is not good.

Our Design Controls the Amount

How do we get not too little and not too much iron?

Our amazing design can control the amount.

Our body has been carefully designed to regulate the amount of iron that is absorbed from our digestive tract into our bodies.  Here’s a simple version of how it works:

imagesIn order for iron to cross the brush border of our small intestines into the bloodstream, it needs a special transport cell – like a taxi – to take it across that border.  A hormone from the liver, hepcidin, regulates how many of these ‘taxis’ are available, depending on how much iron the body needs to keep enough in the storage tanks as well as enough in the bloodstream for daily use.

Too much iron = higher hepcidin = fewer ‘taxis’. Not enough iron = lower hepcidin = more ‘taxis’.

That way we end up with just the right amount of iron for our daily needs with enough left for emergencies.

But there is a problem –

The Iron in Meat Enters Uninvited

In school we learn that there are two sorts of iron – heme iron (which comes from animal foods) and non-heme iron (which we get from plant foods, like spinach).

The non-heme iron follows the safety rules – it catches the available ‘taxi’ into the body.

But the heme iron is like a gate-crasher.  It doesn’t care whether it’s needed or not – it just crashes right through the intestinal border, disregarding the ‘taxis’ standing by, and goes right into the bloodstream; it doesn’t even care if there are no ‘taxis’ waiting at all when the body has enough iron – it barges right in – regardless – none stays outside, leaving the body at risk of an iron overload.

The heme-iron in meat makes its own rules and goes where it pleases.

The heme-iron in meat makes its own rules and goes where it pleases.

The meat industry advertises that iron is one of the good reasons to eat plenty of meat – but it’s actually one of the main reasons to avoid it – because the human body was not designed to handle all that iron that meat brings in.  Most meat eaters are experiencing oxidative damage from too much iron being absorbed.

Several plant foods provide as much iron as red meat per serve – and all in a form that the body can regulate and ‘taxi’ in if needed or leave stored in the intestinal walls for later on if not immediately required.

Where do I get my iron from?

Woman before menopause need almost 18mg/day of iron; men need 8mg (because they don’t have periods and lose blood that way).

I can easily get about:-

  • 4mg from a 1/2 cup of cooked beans or lentils (the same as from a serve of 90g beef), or
  • 4 mg from a cup of mushrooms;
  • potatoes and sweet potatoes are a good source, as are
  • many green vegetables. All fruits and vegetables have some (0.2 – 1mg each serve) and when you eat lots of these in the day, it all adds up.
  • Nuts and seeds average  1 – 3mg iron per serve,
  • whole grains all have some, and
  • dark chocolate is up there with lentils.

A variety of plant foods supply more than enough iron each day.

If you are concerned that you need more iron – then eat foods with Vitamin C in them.  Vitamin C releases 4 – 6 times the amount of iron available for absorption from the foods it was eaten with – if the body needs to absorb it.  Vitamin C rich foods include capsicums, kiwi fruit, citrus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, strawberries and many other vegetables and fruits.

What about phytates and oxalates?

You may have heard that certain inhibiting agents in plant foods reduce mineral absorption.   Fortunately this barely effects iron:

  • Oxalates appear to have a minimal effect on iron availability.  Oxalates are in iron-rich spinach.
  • Phytates are powerful anti-cancer parts of many plant foods, especially legumes and wholegrains. They do restrict a little of the bioavailability of some minerals, including iron, but not enough to hurt people’s health.

We are sure of this because people eating phytate-rich foods live the longest, healthiest lives around the world.

Soaking beans first or yeasting/fermenting grains reduces phytates considerably.  But even if you fail to do this, you are highly unlikely to find yourself short on iron if you are eating a varied diet.

Tea stops iron absorption.

Tea stops iron absorption.

There is one major food that DOES inhibit iron absorption however. That is black and green TEA. Tannins in tea reduce absorption of iron by up to 50%. It makes me wonder whether all these tea drinking English women through the ages who felt tired and weak and wann much of the time were causing their own anaemia by drinking too much tea.  Maybe it wasn’t just their corsets causing their weakness.  Don’t drink tea with meals and don’t drink it too much at any time.

Summary

If you are adopting a plant-based diet and fear you may become weak and anaemic, rest assured, the opposite is true – as long as you are eating enough overall.  The marketing that you have to eat meat to get iron is not based on science.  It’s about selling a product, not making you healthy.  Getting iron from plant foods is the safest way to go.

If you want some advice on dealing with anaemia effectively or ensuring you have sufficient iron in your diet, email me via the ‘Contact Me > Booking Form’ on this site and make an appointment.

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