Sitting down to a cup of tea with my sister the other day, she asked, “Is it true that you can get all the iron you need from green leafy vegetables”.
My reply? “Yes, technically you can, but 8 cups of spinach a day is a LOT, and that’s about how much you would need, every day!”
We both laughed and Nikki followed up with:
“Well if I don’t eat meat, can I get enough iron into my diet from plant foods?”
The short answer is YES, you CAN obtain your iron requirements from plant-based food (non haem iron), but the iron isn’t transferred from the gut into the blood stream as easily as iron from animal foods (haem iron), which is helped into the blood by transporters. So, on average you probably need 1 ½ to 2 times as much non haem iron as haem iron a day to meet your daily iron requirements.
To optimise your body’s iron status, include iron fortified breads & cereals, legumes, tofu, tempeh, collard greens, brown rice, quinoa and figs whilst combining with foods that promote absorption and being mindful of foods that inhibit absorption.
Depending on who you are, will depend on how much you need. Women who are menstruating or pregnant have much higher iron requirements than an elderly person or a male of a similar age.
Girls (14-18 years): 15mg/day
Adult Women (19 – 50years): 18mg/day
Adult Women (50 years and over): 8mg/day
Adult Men: 8mg/day
Boys 14-18: 11mg/day
Now practically, how much non-haem iron is in plant food?
2mg of Iron in each example:
It is so important to combine these plant-based foods with vitamin C foods. Boost your iron absorption with these foods:
Tomatoes, Berries, Capsicum, Sweet Potato, Oranges, Kiwi Fruit + other vitamin C containing foods.
Be mindful that some food contents can lower your body’s ability to absorb iron, like tannins in tea, phosphates in soft drinks and polyphenols in caffeinated drinks. This means caffeinated soft drinks are double trouble! Avoid having these with your iron-rich meals – and have them in between meals.
If you feel you are really fatigued or tired and your iron levels may be contributing to that, consider getting a blood test to check your iron levels. Ask your doctor to provide you with a copy of your results, so you can keep track of your levels over time. Of course, you are welcome to consult with a dietitian about alternative ways to increase your iron levels if they are really low.
In summary, you CAN get all the iron you need from plant-based food, just be mindful of which foods contain iron, promote iron absorption and inhibit your body’s ability to take the iron into the cells.
Hurrell R, Egli I. Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:1461S–7S.
Fairweather-Tait, S.J., Jennings, A., Harvey, L.J., Berry, R., Walton, J. and Dainty, J.R., 2017. Modeling tool for calculating dietary iron bioavailability in iron-sufficient adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 105(6), pp.1408-1414.