It was about time.
After two years into the plant based lifestyle I finally found some time and took some blood test exams to see how my general situation was. For the record I was and still feeling great; I didn’t had and still don’t have a hemorrhoid incident since I adopted a plant based diet.
The one nutrient that really was of a big interest to me was iron. Of course I had a level of concern about the other nutrients too but iron in particular because I did not supplement like Vitamin B12 so I was curious to see how I did living on plants for two years.
A plant based diet does work.
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the results. My iron serum levels, the iron that floats through my veins was 49.2 mg/dl and the reference values were 36 to 145 so I was a little bit on the down side but not in trouble.
My ferritin levels, which is the protein on which iron is stored in the body were 108.8 mg/dl and the reference values were 28 to 397, so I had good storage.
Any kind of exercise does use more iron than sedentary life so not eating any meat and getting my iron solely from plants it seems I was doing something right with my diet and the foods or combination of foods I was having.
But if you have been following me for a while now, there is always a but, I always like to try and be the best at what I do so I sat down and learned a little bit more about Iron and especially how to increase the absorption of iron found in plants.
It turns out that if you combine iron rich foods with Vitamin C rich foods it increases the absorption rate of Iron by at least six times so that was a wow moment for me.
My test results were good if you take under consideration that I was training for half marathons and also running just to keep in shape, furthermore I would do some light weight lifting. During exercise and especially intense one you lose iron because of increased gastrointestinal blood loss after, and red blood cell destruction during running.
We lose iron from our skin cells and also about half of the basal iron losses are from blood, primarily in our gastrointestinal tract also urinary tract and airways.
There is a mathematical formula that you can use to find out how much iron you lose every day. The total amount lost is estimated at 14 μg/kg body weight/day.
Another thing I learned and I was relieved was that the iron lost in sweating according to recent and new studies, is negligible.
Of course women have the added loss of blood when they are menstruating.
The amount of iron we need is approximately:
- 8.7mg a day for men
- 14.8mg a day for women
Because I do engage in regular and intense endurance exercise – what can I say I like running – my average requirements may be 30% to 70% higher. Of course every person is unique like I say so many times in my first book “Thirsty for Health” and this does not necessarily mean that the RDA for runners should be 30 to 70% higher as the RDA provides a buffer above the average iron requirement.
I have been talking about iron for some time now and I didn’t tell you people what does iron does in the body, a pretty useful information I may add.
What is Iron anyway?
Iron is an essential mineral that is needed for red blood cells to bring oxygen to all parts of the body; the oxygen is then used to create energy in more scientific terms it’s a central part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood.
The main functions of Iron are:
- Energy Production
- Required for DNA synthesis
One of the biggest worries of Vegans, vegetarians and generally plant based followers is that they might have iron deficiency (aneamia)
There are more than 400 types of anemia, which are divided into three groups:
- Anemia caused by blood loss
- Anemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell production
- Anemia caused by destruction of red blood cells
For me though this is not an issue because I know, unless there is a serious medical issue, that if you follow a balanced plant based diet you receive high intakes of iron.
One of the many things that I learned after my research on how to increase the absorption of iron was that there are two kinds of iron, haem-iron and non haem iron. You can find both of them in animal derived products. Non-haem iron can only be found in plants and is not as absorbable as haem one.
I solved absorption issue by adding vitamin C to rich iron food which it increases it six-fold as I already mentioned.
Here is a list of Vegan foods that contain rich quantities of iron.
- wholemeal bread and flour
- breakfast cereals fortified with iron
- dark-green leafy vegetables such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens
- dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and figs
There are many more. A very good list of iron rich foods you can find in the lovely book “Vegan for Life” by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina
Also the absorption mechanism of iron of our beautiful body taught me another lesson and made me feel more comfortable with my choice of following a plant based diet.
The lesson was this. Our body cannot deal with excess storage of iron so it developed a very efficient way of handling the absorption process.
In short terms it goes like this. When dietary iron reaches the small intestine our body checks its storage and if the storage is fine then it slows down the absorption rate, if the storage is low then it increases the absorption rate. Ingenious isn’t it?
But unfortunately this is only happening for non-haem iron the iron that is found on plants. The haem iron that is found in meat, goes through our intestine barriers and the body cannot do anything about it.
This information convinced me that our digestive track is designed and optimum for plant based food.
Iron is found in food in two forms, heam and non-heam iron. Heam iron, which makes up 40 percent of the iron in meat, poultry, and fish, is well absorbed. Non-heam iron, 60 percent of the iron in animal tissue and all the iron in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts) is less well absorbed.
Getting too little iron (anaemia) is not the only thing that is dangerous for us, taking too much iron is toxic to our body.
If we get too much iron we are risking getting colorectal cancer, heart disease, infection, neurodegenerative disorders, and inflammatory conditions.
The conditions is called Iron overload and can be fatal if not treated.
There are a number of factors that inhibit the absorption of iron in plants, like Phytates, polyphenols, and calcium supplements.
Also I put lots of vitamin C on my food and also I supplement with lysine an amino acid which increases absorption of iron too.
Enemies of Iron Absorption.
Polyphenols, which include tannic acid, can inhibit iron absorption, and are found in coffee, cocoa, and black, green and many herbal teas.
I stopped drinking liquids while eating for a long time now so for me this is not an issue. I only drink herbal teas now and especially dried nettle tea that I collect from my backyard. Nettle tea is a super food as iron is concerned since it has vitamin C and iron together, the perfect combination. That’s the secret for non-heam iron, find foods that already have iron and vitamin C or if they don’t have add some lemon people, is easy as pie.
From the heart.
This article came from the heart because except me wanting to learn more about the mechanism of iron I also wanted to help a friend increase her Iron storage which are pretty low and if she don’t deal with it now it will lead to Iron deficiency.
She already has some classic symptoms of low iron stores, she gets cold all the time, she is pretty pale and she gets tired easily.
Her ferritin storage is 21 and the low end of the spectrum is 6! From 21 to 12 gm/dl where the value of anemia is in not far!
Some of the anemia caused by iron deficiency are:
- Shortness of breath
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Pounding or “whooshing” in your ears
- Cold hands or feet
- Pale or yellow skin
- Chest pain
Lots of fresh squeezed orange juice. 8oz of orange juice about gives 0.5 mg of iron.
Then an iron rich smoothie, like lots of parsley who you may not know is full of iron, some pears also contain little iron but have vitamin C, a few dates who also have iron to sweeten it and off you go.
Another smoothie is banana strawberry one, Strawberries have iron and also vitamin C.
Another juice you can have in the morning is Beet juice, 8 oz of beet juice gives 1.8mg of iron! Beet doesn’t have much Vitamin C but you can drink it with some carrot juice that has more vitamin C if you can just squeeze a lemon in your juice.
As I said the secret is to combine iron rich food with lots and lots of vitamin C, if you do that correctly- and you don’t have a serious medical problem – with proper planning you will not have to supplement, which as latest searches indicate is not good for your health.
For lunch three times a week we are going to eat boiled lentils, another iron packed food which we always combine it with onion and lemon juice and also all of our meals especially lunch we always have a big “rainbow” salad we try to have as many colors as we can, that’s salad is also another good source of iron. Green leafy vegetables especially.
Once a week green peas, which are also rich with iron. White Beans at least once a week, they are packed with iron too. Brown rice also another iron friendly food.
Boiled potatoes, sweet potatoes in the oven also have iron. Once a week we have our gluten free pasta plate and also grilled raw veggies on the stove especially red peppers who also have a generous amount of iron.
At night we usually have soups, like mung soup or orange pumpkin soup, or smoothies or a big salad. Mung and orange pumpkin do also contain good quantities of iron.
I got her lots of dried apricots, figs and prunes they are also rich in iron.
The secret with everything not just nutrition is to understand and accept your uniqueness and after you do that experiment and find what works for you.