Want to know how to get enough iron on a plant-based diet? Here are the best sources of iron for vegan athletes (and all vegans!) and how to increase iron absorption with a few simple habits.
What is iron?
From pumping blood to boosting brain power, iron is an essential mineral that plays an important role in many body functions. These include blood production and transporting oxygen around the body, as well as assisting immune function, enzyme production, collagen synthesis and cognition.
Food sources of iron
Iron is found in food in two forms: haem and non-haem.
Haem iron is found in meat and animal products and is much more bioavailable (easily absorbed) than non-haem iron, which is found in plant-based foods. This means that those following a poorly-planned vegetarian or vegan diet, especially if you’re an athlete, are at an increased risk of becoming iron deficient. However, there are plenty of strategies that can be used to increase our ability to absorb non-heme iron.
How to increase iron absorption
1. Consume plant-based sources of iron along with foods high in vitamin C (kiwi fruit, oranges, berries, parsley, spinach, lemons).
2. Consume plant-based sources of iron along with foods high in lysine (avocados, mangos, tomatoes, beans, peas, sweet potato, broccoli, asparagus).
3. Cook in cast iron pots and pans.
4. Soak and sprout grains and legumes to add to meals and snacks.
And while we’re here, consuming foods that contain tannins (red wine, coffee, tea) or lots of calcium with or close to foods that contain iron will actually decrease your absorption of iron.
Recommended daily intake of iron
The recommended daily intake of iron changes depending on age group and gender:
– Men and post-menopausal women require 8 mg of iron per day
– Women of childbearing age require 18 mg per day
– Pregnant women require 27 mg per day
– Breastfeeding women require 9 mg per day
– Athletes need more iron than most people due to increased levels of oxygen that need to be moved around the body. Chat to your dietitian to balance your iron levels depending on your physical activity level.
As the absorption rates of iron differ, it’s recommended that those following vegetarian or vegan diets consume 1.8x the recommended intake of iron. This is to account for the lower absorption rate of non-haem iron.
What happens if you don’t have enough iron?
Despite iron being found in many foods, iron deficiency is extremely common all around the world. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, dizziness, muscle cramps, weakness, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, headaches, brittle nails and a sore tongue. Prolonged iron deficiency results in anaemia, which is where there are fewer and smaller red blood cells, affecting their ability to transport sufficient amounts of oxygen around the body.
Vegan food sources of iron
1. Soy products – ½ cup = 4.5 mg
2. Sesame seeds – ¼ cup = 4.3 mg
3. Lentils- ½ cup = 3.3 mg
4. Spinach – ½ cup = 3.2 mg
5. Kidney beans and chickpeas – ½ cup = 2.2 – 2.4 mg
6. Swiss chard – ½ cup = 2 mg
7. Quinoa – ½ cup = 1.4 mg
8. Dried apricots – ⅓ cup = 1 mg
9. Pumpkin seeds – 2 tbsp = 1 mg
10. Peanut butter – 1 tbsp = 0.60 mg
And here are delicious ideas for some iron-rich vegan meals
2 Weet-bix + 1 cup soy milk + dried apricots + peanut butter = 7.7 mg iron
Lentils + spinach + quinoa + tahini dressing = 13.4 mg iron
Swiss chard + spinach + chickpeas + roasted tofu + pumpkin seeds = 11.1 mg
Fortified sources of iron
Many foods are also fortified with iron, which helps make it easier for people to reach their recommended daily intake. Examples of foods that are fortified with iron include breakfast cereals, store-bought breads, flour, rice and also some beverages, particularly orange juice.
Testing and supplements
For those who are struggling to meet their iron intake through food or are meeting their recommended intake, but are still finding themselves with sub-optimal iron levels, iron supplementation may be necessary. Supplementation should always be discussed with your doctor, following assessment of your iron studies, which are a series of blood tests that carefully assess your iron levels.
If you’re vegan and are worried about your performance goals, consider working with a dietitian to ensure that your diet is properly balanced and well as delicious and satisfying.