With plant-based diets becoming more popular, cases of iron deficiency have also risen. Yet, even though iron deficiency is very common, a laissez-faire attitude around the condition can be very dangerous, especially when it comes to women’s health.
Statistics show that ten percent of women in the United States are iron deficient. When left unresolved (which many cases are) iron deficiency can leave you feeling lethargic and weak and negatively affect your brain and immune systems. On top of that, for pregnant women, an iron deficiency can lead to more serious issues for the unborn child.
Why is iron so essential?
This essential mineral is found naturally in some of the foods we consume and it is also added to many processed food products. Yet, did you know there are two forms of dietary iron, that your body needs? Nonheme iron is found in “plants and iron-fortified foods,” while heme iron is found in “meat, seafood, and poultry.”
This mineral is a “component of hemoglobin, an erythrocyte protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues.” Iron is also a component of another protein called myoglobin “that provides oxygen to muscles,” which means iron supports your metabolism. Along with these important functions, iron aids in “growth, development, normal cellular functioning, and synthesis of some hormones and connective tissues.” The absorption efficiency and distribution of iron are controlled by a hormone called hepcidin using red blood cells and plasma.
Understanding Iron Deficiency
You might be surprised to learn that iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States. This is in large part due to the standard American diet, which oftentimes lacks foods rich in iron, yet it can also be caused by other health issues.
Many people mistake anemia for iron deficiency. This is only partly true. There are various forms of anemia, one of which is iron-deficient anemia (IDA). The other types of anemia include vitamin deficiency anemia — decreased red blood cell production due to lacking nutrition — anemia of chronic disease — diseases that interfere with red blood cell production — aplastic anemia — when the body doesn’t produce red blood cells due to infection, medicines, diseases, or toxic chemicals — bone marrow associated anemia — when production of bone marrow red blood cells is disrupted —hemolytic anemias — “when red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them” — and sickle cell anemia — an inherited illness that forces red blood cells into abnormal crescent shapes.
Iron-deficient anemia (IDA) is not only the most common anemia in the United States but also worldwide. The cause is just as the name implies, a shortage of iron, and “without adequate iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin for red blood cells.” The result is that iron-deficient anemia starves your body of the oxygen it needs to function appropriately. Due to this starvation, sufferers will experience fatigue, weakness, lethargy, pale skin, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, headaches, brittle nails, and dizziness, to name just a few of the long list of symptoms. There are a few causes of iron-deficient anemia including inadequate consumption of iron, inability to absorb iron, internal bleeding, ulcers, cancer, some over-the-counter medications, and, in women’s case, menstruation and pregnancy.
This is why appropriate iron consumption for women is particularly important.
Iron Deficiency in Women
Women have a higher risk of iron-deficient anemia due to two main factors: one, women menstruate, therefore we lose more iron-rich blood, and two, women can carry and birth babies.
To understand the difference, let’s take a look at how men and women store and lose iron.
Most of our consumed iron makes its way to hemoglobin — proteins in red blood cells — yet both men and women store the remainder in the “liver, spleen, and bone marrow,” as well as in muscle tissue in the form of myoglobin. Small quantities of iron are lost via “urine, feces, the gastrointestinal tract, and skin.” Yet, due to menstruation, women’s bodies have ample opportunity to lose more iron than men.
What are the risks?
Five percent of “women of childbearing age develop iron-deficiency anemia because of heavy bleeding during their periods.” Most doctors prescribe iron supplements, yet in extreme cases, women may use birth control to manage heavy menstrual bleeding. With that said, while hormonal birth control generally lightens menstrual bleeding, non-hormonal birth control, such as the “copper IUD (Paragard) may make your menstrual flow heavier.” Therefore, it’s all about working through your options with your doctor.
Pregnancy also increases women’s risk of iron-deficient anemia. Due to the increased amount of iron necessary during pregnancy — mamas-to-be need at least twice as much iron — one in six pregnant women suffer from iron-deficient anemia. This can be dangerous for the baby. Iron-deficient anemia during pregnancy “raises your risk for premature birth or a low-birth-weight baby (less than 5 1/2 pounds).” Premature birth is “the most common cause of infant death” and a low birth weight can increase the risk of “health and developmental problems at birth and during childhood.”
With that said, once your baby is born, you will need less iron during breastfeeding. This is because “you likely will not lose a lot through your menstrual cycle” during that time as most breastfeeding women either don’t get their period or will have an extremely light one.
How much iron do women need?
Recommended daily allowances (RDA) for iron depend on age, gender, and pregnancy.
For instance, women between 19 and 50 years of age are recommended to consume 18 milligrams per day. Pregnant women in that same age bracket are recommended 27 milligrams. Yet, intake is further dependent on lactation, with an intake for that same age bracket decreasing to nine milligrams.
All of this is to say that appropriate iron consumption is not only essential but complicated when it comes to women’s health. Therefore it’s incredibly important to speak with your doctor about your personal iron consumption needs.
Butternut Squash Tacos With Tempeh Chorizo/One Green Planet
If you’re a plant-based eater, there are plentiful sources of iron that also happen to be delicious and easy to implement in your already busy lives. From beans to hemp, mulberries to quinoa, and many more, if you’re looking to avoid or already suffer from iron-deficient anemia, make sure to get a whole helping of these iron-rich foods!
Foolproof Mega Lentil Burger/One Green Planet
When I think of plant-based superfoods, lentils make the top five! Not only does a cup of lentils provide 37 percent of your recommended daily intake, but that same cup also provides over 15 grams of dietary fiber, over 16 grams of protein, over 300 milligrams of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, vitamins, such as A, C, E, K, B6 and B12, choline, and folate, and minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and selenium.
Parsley and Pepita Falafel Salad/One Green Planet
Nuts and seeds are a staple in any plant-based diet. They are perfect for snacking and don’t take any or much prep. Yet, they are also a great source of iron. One of my favorite snack items is pumpkin seeds or, when toasted, pepitas. Pumpkin seeds, along with sesame, hemp, and flaxseed, “are the seeds richest in iron, containing around 1.2 – 4.2 mg per two tablespoons, or 7 – 23 percent of the RDI.” Another unique and flavorful addition to your iron-rich list is pine nuts. Pine nuts, along with cashews, almonds, and macadamias, “contain between 1 – 1.6 mg of iron per ounce, or around 6 – 9 percent of the RDI.”
While you can consume seeds raw, you can also include them in recipes such as this Pumpkin Pomegranate Cheesecake or this Parsley and Pepita Falafel Salad. Nuts are a great baking ingredient, such as in this Chocolate Fudge Pine Nut Cookie recipe, but most people like to use them to make nut-based milk, such as this DIY almond milk, or butter, such as this Cashew Butter.
Cranberry Eggnog Oatmeal/One Green Planet
I seem to talk about oats a lot in my articles and that’s because they truly are the plant-based miracle ingredient. You can make so many things with oats! From cookies and cakes to porridge and oatmeal to bread and snack bars, this is the all-around wonderful plant-based ingredient to have in your kitchen. On top of that, oats are a great source of plant-based iron as “a cup of cooked oats contains around 3.4 mg of iron — 19 percent of the RDI — as well as good amounts of plant protein, fiber, magnesium, zinc, and folate.”
For those looking at supplement forms of iron, there are a lot of options. As with all supplements, you’ll want to look for organic, natural, non-GMO products without fillers or binders. If you’re a practicing vegan or vegetarian, then you’ll also want to keep an eye out for “vegetarian” or “vegan” capsules.
Garden of Life is a great company that offers many vegan and vegetarian options, such as this Garden of Life Iron Complex or Garden of Life Iron Supplement, which is “raw, vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free with no binders or fillers.”
Rainbow Light is another plant-based friendly company. They offer this Complete Iron Mini-Tabs supplement which contains food-based iron and is vegan, gluten-free, and “made with natural, purity tested ingredients and NO artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, or sweeteners.” Rainbow Light also guarantees 100 percent post-consumer recycled and recyclable bottles, which also happen to be BPA-free.
If you’re looking for strict organic, New Chapter is the way to go. This New Chapter Iron Supplement is marketed specifically for women due to our higher risk of iron deficiency. These supplements are made with organic vegetables and herbs, are 100 percent vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, non-GMO project verified, and contain no artificial flavors, colors, synthetic fillers, or animal gelatin.
For more iron-rich plant-based foods and recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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