What is Iron?
Besides those heavy things you lift in the gym iron is an essential nutrient because it is a central part of haemoglobin. Simply put, haemoglobin carries oxygen in the blood.
Types of Iron
Iron is found in two forms, heme and non-heme iron.
Both heme and non-heme iron are found in animal products in the ratio of 40% and 60% respectively.
Non-heme however is only present in plant-based foods. Heme iron, the type found predominantly in blood and muscle, is absorbed better than the non-heme iron, but may increase the risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. Because heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body it has been historically coined as the "better iron", however through recent studies it is actually quite the opposite.
Why is Heme Iron Bad?
The human body naturally regulates iron absorption from plant-based sources, thus preventing iron overload. Heme iron from animal foods, however, is readily absorbed and not well regulated by the body, so once ingested and absorbed, the body has no mechanism to remove excess iron.
There is no question about dietary iron being essential for the functioning of the body. However iron is also a pro-oxidant, and too much of it can induce oxidative stress (inflammation) and (DNA damage) due to the iron-associated production of a dangerous free radical called hydroxyl (-OH ). Specifically, heme iron has been linked to metabolic syndrome, coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, arthritis, cancer and other serious medical conditions.
Why are Vegans More Deficient?
They aren't. However, every man and his dog will try and convince you otherwise. Based on scientific research and case studies, iron deficiency "anemia" is no more common among vegans, or vegetarians than among the general population.
Does vegan food contain iron?
You bet! In fact, a whole food plant-based diet may naturally control iron in the body. Its also recommended, to counteract the risks associated with heme iron, to consume phytates found in plants, as they are a powerful natural inhibitor of the iron-associated production of hydroxyl free radicals.
Great Vegan Iron Sources.
A few of the best plant-based iron sources include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds.
It is often a good idea to consume vitamin C to increase your iron absorption. Good sources of vitamin C include pepper, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kiwifruit, oranges, strawberries, pineapple, grapefruit and orange juice.
Did you Know?
Getting the perfect balance of iron in the body is an art. If we don’t absorb enough, we risk anemia; but if absorb too much, we may increase our risk of cancer, heart disease, and a number of inflammatory conditions. Because the human body has no mechanism to rid itself of excess iron, one should choose plant-based (non-heme) sources over heme sources, which our body has some control over.
- Mangels, R. (August 2018) Iron in the Vegan Diet, retrieved 14 July 2019 from The Vegetarian Resource Group: https://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php
- Greger, M. (5 June 2015) The Safety of Heme vs Non Heme Iron, retrieved 5 june 2019 from Nutrition Facts: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-safety-of-heme-vs-non-heme-iron/
- Kim, H. et al (7 August 2019) Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults, retrieved 1 November 2019 from Journal of the American Heart Association: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865