How to Combat Low Iron Levels on a Vegan Diet

Vegetable and animal iron – there is a difference!

Iron is part of animal and plant tissues, but it takes a different form in each of them.

The form found in animal flesh is called heme iron, which your body absorbs easily, but without limit and that’s why it can be dangerous.

Too much heme iron stimulates the production of free radicals, molecules that damage your DNA and increase your risk of heart disease.

Plants, on the other hand, contain non-heme iron, which is absorbed by your body in smaller amounts as needed.

It does not accumulate in the same way as heme iron, so it cannot accumulate to dangerous levels. This means it’s safer, but also means you need good daily sources to meet the body’s demands.

Good plant sources include beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, fortified breakfast cereals, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits (apricots , prunes and figs), cocoa, cashews, pumpkin and chia seeds.

What affects your iron levels?

The most obvious event affecting iron levels in women is the menstrual cycle.

You inevitably lose iron in your menstrual blood and it takes time for these levels to return to normal – around a week after your period.

What’s less well known is that your iron levels start to drop a day or two before your period starts because the uterine lining is saturated with blood that will eventually leave your body.

Another problem is when your body doesn’t absorb enough iron from the foods you eat. This can happen due to a digestive disorder, such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, or it can be genetic.

You cannot easily change this, so you will need to follow medical advice for your particular condition.

What you can control, however, is what you absorb.

Certain foods and beverages reduce iron absorption, so you may eat lots of iron-rich foods but still have low iron levels.

Coffee and tea are the main culprits. It is recommended to leave at least an hour between eating and drinking tea or coffee.

You may have heard of substances called phytates – antioxidants found in a range of plant foods that bind to minerals, reducing their availability.

They are found primarily in whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, but are largely deactivated by soaking, fermenting, cooking, roasting, and digestive juices in your stomach.

Phytates aren’t a big deal, but if you’re low on iron, try soaking nuts before eating them, making overnight oats with chia seeds, choosing produce fermented soy foods like tempeh or opting for fortified breakfast cereals.

Finally, stress can affect the way your body uses iron, interfering with the manufacture of hemoglobin and this alone can lead to low iron levels.

Perhaps surprisingly, stress management techniques can help your body use iron the way it should!

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