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Anyone who pays attention to their health and diet will have at some point thought about whether they are getting enough iron or not. Most of us know a little about how important iron is for our overall well-being.

People on a plant-based diet often get asked about where they get this nutrient or that vitamin, and iron seems to be one that is high on people’s lists of concerns. Since meat is a known source of quality iron, vegans look to other plant-based alternatives to get their Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).

Not getting enough iron can cause quite serious complications for our health with iron deficiency anemia being one of them. Luckily, there is no reason why vegetarians and vegans can’t get their RDA of iron through a well-balanced diet that is stuffed with iron-rich plant-based foods.

Recommended Dietary Allowance of Iron

So, how much iron should we be getting anyway? The amount of iron we need depends on our age and sex. Males between the ages of 19-50 require 8mg of iron while females need 18mg. Pregnant people of the same age range will need 27mh of iron per day.

The Importance of Iron in Diets

Iron combines with proteins to make hemoglobin, an essential part of red blood cells, and is what gives blood its red color. More importantly, it is what carries oxygen from our lungs to our body tissue ensuring that we have healthy muscles. Iron is also a component of myoglobin which stores oxygen in our muscle cells.

As well, iron is responsible for healthy brain and body development, boosting our ability to fight infection, and is involved in the makeup of some hormones.

Problems of Iron Deficiency

There are various reasons why a person may not be getting an adequate amount of iron in their bloodstream. However, it can be caused by simply not having enough iron in their diet or not being unable to absorb the iron consumed.

Whatever the case, an iron deficiency can cause a number of symptoms including fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

Heme, Non-Heme Iron and Vitamin C

Dietary iron is present in two forms: heme and non-heme iron. Heme, meaning blood, refers to iron sources that come from meat and shellfish. Non-heme iron, on the other hand, is a form of dietary iron that is found in plants.

The bioavailability of heme iron is much higher than that of non-heme iron, meaning that heme iron is much more easily absorbed by our bodies than non-heme iron. As a result, those on a plant-based diet need to pay attention to having a diet full of iron-rich foods.

Something that can help our bodies to absorb non-heme iron is to eat it with sources of vitamin C as well. Vitamin C combines with iron to help the body more readily absorb it. Having a big spinach and tomato salad would be a great start.

There are also culprits in our diets that may hinder the absorption of iron. However, again, eating your meal with a good source of vitamin C should help to balance everything out.

Polyphenols, compounds found in tea, coffee, red wine, dark chocolate, and some fruits and vegetables, actually act as antioxidants in our bodies and work as anti-inflammatory agents.

That said, some research, though limited, showed that polyphenols inhibit the absorption of iron. If you are one to drink a cup of tea, coffee, or wine with your non-heme, iron-rich meal, consider having it a little later on to give your body a chance to make the most of the beautiful meal you have made for it.

Phytic acid found in legumes can seriously hinder the absorption of iron. Fortunately, soaking beans and lentils well before consuming them can help to break down this acid.

Great Sources of Non-Heme Iron

As seems to be the case with any dietary concern, eating a well-balanced meal is a good start in ironing things out (pun intended). Here are some really good sources of non-heme iron that we all should be getting our hands on. Remember that vitamin C, though!

Two tablespoons of blackstrap molasses contains 7.2 milligrams of iron. It also contains sugar, so watch out for that. Half a cup of tofu contains 6.6mg of iron while the same amount of tempeh has 4.5mg.

One cup of cooked spinach contains 6.4 milligrams and the same amount of cooked chard can provide you with 4mg of iron. Kale, collards, and beets also make the top of the list.

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Iron deficiency can be very serious, so seek medical attention if you are showing any symptoms. 

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