It is a common misconception that plant-based diets don’t provide an adequate source of iron, potentially leading to an iron deficiency. This misconception likely comes from a concern about iron absorption. Iron from plant-based foods is non-heme iron, which is, in fact, a little harder for our bodies to absorb than heme iron, which comes from animals. However, there are many plant-based foods that are a great source of iron and, with a little bit of knowledge and some good planning, there are many ways to maximize iron absorption and reduce your risk of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia.
Why is iron so important?
Iron is a major component of hemoglobin, which is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body. In iron-deficiency anemia there is a lack of healthy red blood cells, which can cause a variety of symptoms including fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness, cold hands and feet, and pale skin.
What are the best sources of plant-based iron?
To avoid iron-deficiency anemia, eat plenty of good sources of non-heme iron from plant foods, including: (these can also be part of an anti-cancer diet!):
Nuts and Seeds:
- Cashew nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Sweet potatoes
- Beans (kidney, garbanzo, or white)
- Soybeans (and tofu)
- Dried peas and beans
Breads and cereals:
- Whole grain bread and other whole grain products
- Oat cereal
- Corn meal and polenta
- Bran cereals
- Rye bread
What about fish?
Various types of fish such as tuna,* haddock, mackerel, herring,** and sardines also contain iron. Because these high protein sources of iron also contain omega 3 fatty acids, they can improve circulation and reduce inflammation, making them an important addition to your anti-cancer diet. Iron from fish is mostly heme iron, and therefore more easily absorbed by the body. For patients struggling with loss of appetite, consuming fish two to three times weekly can fill the gap and help patients not only meet protein and iron requirements, but help prevent muscle loss as well.
How can we increase iron absorption?
Another key to preventing iron deficiency is being intentional about bioavailability (the proportion of a nutrient that is absorbed and utilized by the body). Iron is best absorbed when it is consumed with vitamin C. Good sources of vitamin C include; citrus fruits, fresh bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and tomato-based sauces, broccoli, cauliflower, and kiwi.
In addition to vitamin C, carotenoids in foods such as carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, broccoli, oranges and tomatoes, can also increase non-heme iron absorption. Some probiotics have also been proven effective in increasing iron absorption. Foods with Lactobacillus (a probiotic) include tempeh, kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut. Eating these foods on a regular basis can help increase the amount of iron your body can absorb.
Can some foods decrease iron absorption?
Yes, as a matter of fact, they can! Phytates found in whole grains, seeds, legumes, and nuts can slightly decrease the absorption of iron. (These foods are also foods with iron though! This is where pairing with vitamin C, carotenoids, or probiotic foods can mitigate this affect). Polyphenols in tea, coffee, and wine can also decrease the absorption of iron. Try to avoid consuming high calcium foods like milk products at the same time as the iron rich foods, since calcium can also inhibit iron absorption. One more reason to eliminate dairy from your diet!
By being mindful of food choices, paying attention to food pairing and making some minor adjustments, it is indeed possible to get adequate iron while eating a plant-based diet! Some patients find it helpful to use a food diary or tracking tool to approximate iron intake.
If you have any questions or can use some guidance from one of our Center’s registered dietitians, please call us at 1-877-412-5625 to schedule a consultation!
*Make sure to consume only chunk lite tuna or brands that test the tuna for mercury to ensure they are safe!
**Make sure the herring does not contain excess sugar, as is the case with some brands of pickled herring.
- With thanks to Block Center’s dietitian intern Cassandra Hansen