Eating a primarily plant-based diet has many incredible benefits including healthy weight loss and management, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and even a reduced risk of cancer. With that said, one of the hurdles that plant-based dieters face, especially strict vegetarian and vegan practices, is a condition called anemia, in which “your blood does not carry enough oxygen to the rest of your body” due to insufficient iron levels.
For those that suffer from this condition, how do you continue to uphold your plant-based eating values, while also maintaining overall health? You’re in luck! There is a range of plant-based foods that help the human body retain iron and avoid anemia altogether.
What is Iron?
Let’s take a deep dive into what iron is and what it does for your body. In its basic form, iron is simply an essential mineral. Once absorbed, iron-rich proteins called hemoglobin attach to oxygen and are carried throughout the body. Via this transport vessel, iron is carried to tissues throughout the body producing energy (referred to as myoglobin), as well as playing a crucial role in removing carbon dioxide. Iron is also an incredibly important nutrient for brain development and overall growth of babies and children.
One misconception regarding iron is that the only reliable source is found in animal products such as “meat, seafood, and poultry.” The truth is that there are actually two types of iron that can be absorbed from food called heme and non-heme. While heme iron is meat-based, non-heme iron is said to be accountable for 85 to 90 percent of your total iron and can be absorbed via plant-based foods including “spinach and beans, grains that are enriched, like rice and bread, and some fortified cereals.”
The Relationship between Iron and Anemia
First off, anemia isn’t relegated to plant-based dieters. In fact, anemia is the most common blood disorder in the United States affecting over three million people for a variety of reasons including pregnancy, infections, chronic diseases, and poor diet, to name just a few risk factors.
So, what exactly is anemia?
There are a handful of incredibly serious types of anemia including aplastic anemia, a rare bone marrow failure disorder; hemolytic anemia, when red blood cells are broken up and therefore unable to carry iron-rich protein to the necessary tissues; and sickle cell anemia, when hemoglobin protein is abnormal. The most common type of anemia is iron-deficiency anemia, which occurs “when you don’t have enough iron in your blood.” If you’re given a diagnosis of iron-deficiency anemia it means that you don’t have enough hemoglobin (those iron-rich proteins). Basically, your body lacks oxygen. People with anemia generally experience dizziness, shortness of breath and overall weakness, headaches, chest pain or irregular heartbeat, or less obvious symptoms such as cold hands or feet and pale skin.
Luckily, the human body is designed to self-regulate the appropriate levels of iron via absorption. If you’re looking to give your body a helping hand, the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for iron vary depending on age and gender. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 are recommended an intake of 18 milligrams, while a male over the age of 19 is recommended 8 milligrams.
Plant-Based Foods that Help Absorb and Retain Iron
It’s not just about an iron-rich diet. While you may stock up on those plant-based sources of iron, such as spinach and legumes, it’s also important to account for your body’s ability to absorb and retain the iron you’re consuming. Luckily, there are a few nutrients readily available in plant-based food products that help your body retain that essential iron!
Vitamin C is an acid, more specifically an L-ascorbic acid, that is not produced by the human body and therefore must be consumed via diet or supplements. While vitamin C is popular for its immune boosting properties, this vitamin is oh so much more! Vitamin C is “required for the biosynthesis of collagen, L-carnitine, and certain neurotransmitters,” is part of protein metabolism, is an “essential component of connective tissue” and wound healing, and is also an antioxidant. It has also been shown to help the body absorb and retain iron by capturing the plant-based iron (non-heme), transforming it into a more absorption friendly form, and stores it for use.
While this may incline you to stock up on oranges, there are a host of vitamin C-rich plant-based foods that are lower in sugar content. These include dark green and leafy veggies such as kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red and green bell peppers, chili peppers, melons, strawberries, and other citrus fruits. Try out a few of these vitamin C-rich recipes: Spicy Broccoli Pasta with Lemon Breadcrumb, Strawberry and Raspberry Jam, Dark Chocolate and Orange Pecan Loaf, or Sunflower Seeds and Brussels Sprouts Pesto.
Vitamin A and Beta Carotene
Vitamin A is not just one nutrient, but a “group of fat-soluble retinoids, including retinol, retinal, and retinyl esters.” Yet, when it comes to consumption via diet, there are only two forms of vitamin A: preformed vitamin A (retinol and retinyl ester) and provitamin A carotenoids. Vitamin A begins as beta-carotene, a red-orange pigment found in plants, which is then transformed into vitamin A when consumed. While it’s most widely-known as essential for healthy vision, vitamin A is also involved in immune function, cellular communication and growth, and reproduction, as well as the “formation and maintenance of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs.” Recent studies have also illuminated a connection between vitamin A and the efficacy of iron. The Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research discovered that vitamin A and beta-carotene actually enhanced the absorption on plant-based iron (non-heme), specifically from wheat (by 80 percent), rice (by 200 percent), and corn (by 140 percent).
When upping your plant-based sources of vitamin A and beta-carotene think orange and red foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, squash, red peppers, apricots, and peaches. Vitamin A-rich recipes are plentiful for plant-based dieters including staples such as these Sriracha Sweet Potato Chips, salads like this Sweet Potato and Spinach Salad With Almond Dijon Vinaigrette, vegan burgers such as Roasted Red Pepper Chickpea Burger, and fruit-based desserts like Apricot Bars.
With all that goes on in your daily life, it’s often a challenge to fit all the necessary nutrients into your waking hours. This is where supplements become a great and quick source to get some of those essential vitamins that you may be lacking. If you’ve been diagnosed as anemia or on the verge of anemia, it’s a great idea to take iron supplements. With that said, you can also increase how efficient iron supplements are by integrating absorption and retention supplements such as such as this Garden of Life Non-GMO Vitamin C supplement, or this Bronson Vitamin A 10,000 IU Premium Non-GMO Formula.
With thousands of archived plant-based recipes, the Food Monster App makes it incredibly easy to incorporate those iron-absorbing foods! The app is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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