Iron is something we all know we need, but perhaps we don’t know quite how much. Inevitably, health talks center around diet fads like carb-cutting, protein-packing or the good fats. Really, as conscientious eaters, we should be thinking more about our vitamins and minerals, and iron is one of the most important ones. It also one of the nutrients that people are consistently deficient in, especially women and toddlers. The good news is that it is easy to get enough iron, and it’s easy to do it on a plant-based diet.

What Iron Does for Us

Iron is really a multi-purpose nutrient. It’s involved in creating red blood cells, getting oxygen to the lungs, and converting blood sugar to energy. It helps muscles perform at their highest levels, helps our bodies recover from illness, and helps our immune system fight off illness. It’s very important for pregnant women to get enough as they are the lone source for developing babies.

What Iron Deficiency Does to Us

A lack of something as important as iron has major effects on our bodies. Because it is integral to the circulation of oxygen throughout our bodies, too little iron results in fatigue, lightheadedness and diminished stamina. Additionally, our immune system is weakened, leaving us susceptible to illness, and then, without iron, our immune system isn’t equipped to fight off that illness. The brain likes to get oxygen as well.

Why People Have Iron Deficiencies

We lose iron in many different ways: sweating, exfoliating, using the bathroom and bleeding. Bleeding is the most identifiable issue with iron loss, which is why young women tend to be the most likely to struggle with maintaining sufficient iron.

A few other issues cause low counts of iron. Dairy products often displace food sources of iron and may inhibit its absorption, which is why young children are the next most likely to have iron deficiency. As well, plant-based eaters and vegans need to also be aware because whole grains and legumes, something that is featured heavily in plant-based diets, contain a compound — phytate  that hinders iron absorption.

How Vitamin C Helps With Iron

To ensure that our efforts to consume enough iron are not thwarted by evil phytates, we need only consume a little Vitamin C, about 50 milligrams, supplied by a few strips of green pepper or some tomato sauce. Broccoli, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits and berries are other good sources. The Vitamin C neutralizes the phytates and the iron is good to go. (Note: While whole grains and legumes have phytates, they are still wonderful to have in a balanced diet and, ironically, are a great source of iron.)

Where to Get Your Iron

Iron is in lots of stuff, with a variety of palates to enjoy and some great flavor combinations to go with those Vitamin C-rich foods. Spinach, of course, is the classic source of iron, and likewise, other dark greens like Swiss chard and kale. Blackstrap molasses, a bit of a rogue wonder-food high in calcium, and dark chocolate, a well-known wonder food, are lesser known as iron foods, but they pack a good dosage. Seeds, especially pumpkin and sesame, as well as nuts, contain iron. And, for those of us who are up for some organic tofu, here’s another reason to eat it.

Here are some great iron rich recipes (with vitamin C) to try:

Image source: Seeds and Goji Berry Granola