Not long ago a colleague of mine told me that she was vegetarian, almost vegan for a few years but later when she wanted children she decided to start to eat meat again. I find these stories really interesting, there are a number of reasons to go vegan but why does someone go back? Her answer was simple: iron. She said she couldn’t get enough of it, and her doctor recommended her to eat meat for her and her offsprings health. She said they tried everything, they even put rusty nails in apples that then she would eat.
I wish I had the chance to understand more of her initial motivations to go vegetarian, how long she was vegetarian, if she got her blood-test done, if her doctor was against a vegan diet in general, if she got a second opinion, if she tried iron supplements other than the rusty apple… etc., but I didn’t get the chance, as we were in the middle of a pretty intense work situation and she seemed very sure that she tried everything and that the only way to get her iron-level optimal was to eat meat. Her first child was born 15 years ago, when being vegan was even more condemned by our doctors as it is now. I understand, that she decided to follow her doctors advice back then, especially as a mother who is responsible for her children, but I see it as a failure of western medicine and a really good rationalized explanation for her and her family to eat meat for the rest of their life, without revisiting the iron question.
I do believe that we have better research by now to support that it is more than possible to live on a vegan diet without anaemia (iron-deficiency). If you feel tired and suspect iron-deficiency, please don’t self diagnose and blame your vegetables, but get a blood test done. Everyone’s transition is different, but going vegan is also a deep detoxication process and as all detoxication, can cause fatigue in the beginning that will be replaced with the energy that you get from a versatile plant-based diet.
The idea that you can get more iron from meat than vegetables is simply not true, you would have to eat more than 1700 calories of steak (28.3oz answering to 15.2mg iron) to get the same amount of iron as found in 100 calories of spinach (2.5cups, answering to 15.5mg iron)!
Iron is an essential mineral that plays an important part in transporting oxygen as a building element of hemoglobin is our blood.
There are two types of iron: 1. “non-heme” iron, found in plants and animal flesh as well; and 2. “heme” iron, that is found only in animal flesh. While the latter is absorbed faster, it can do damage to our body, whole non-heme iron absorbance is a slower but a much more stable and well-regulated process. Once the chemical process of absorption is done, there is no difference between the two kinds when it comes to our biological processes.
A colourful, healthy vegan diet is really rich in “non-heme” iron. To help absorption, it is important to combine iron rich foods with Vitamin C rich foods (lemon, orange, peppers…) and to avoid absorption-hindering things like: tannin rich coffee, tea, and calcium supplements.
While it is important to get enough iron, it is not good to have too much either. Instead of eating supplements, it is much better to eat a varied plant-based diet that keeps our iron level on a not too high but stable low level – linked to better glucose tolerance and less free radical cell damage, preventing diabetes and cancer.
Here’s a list of delicious foods that contain the most of iron:
Seeds: Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds especially – contain more iron per unit than anything else including red meat and liver! other great sources are sunflower seeds, flax seeds
Nuts: cashews, pine nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, macademia
Legumes: beans, lentils and tofu
Whole grains like hulled barley, oats, brown rice, bulgur are great sources too, but should be avoided if you take iron supplements, as the bran can interfere with its absorbency (It’s chemistry, and complicated, but the point is that supplements use different vitamers with different molecular structures than the ones we find it mother nature.)
Dark leafy vegetables like kale, swiss chard, spinach
And this one you’ll love: dark chocolate!
To add more non-heme iron, extra crunch and depth to your meals, toast a mix of pumpkin and sunflower seeds in a dry pan, pour them in a jar and keep it at hand so you can sprinkle it on top of soups, sandwiches and salads!