There is a longstanding myth according to which, vegan diets are low in iron. Ah!, the vegan diet, deficient in yet another mineral. Yet another reason to not consume this new age vegan diet! However, is there any substance to this myth? To unshroud this mystery, we’ll first need to get back to basics and gain some information on iron, its importance for us and its types. Cause, who would come to conclusions about iron deficiency without even understanding the basics, right?
Iron, its importance, its types and recommended intake.
Simply put, iron is a mineral which is naturally found in many foods and is a part of both Haemoglobin and Myoglobin. It is essential for some ‘non essential’ processes like physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, muscle metabolism, and synthesis of some hormones. As per the RDA, adults above the age of 18 need 8 mg of iron intake per day. As far as its types are concerned, it comes in 2 types - Heme and Non Heme. While Heme iron is only found in animal based products, non heme iron is found in plant based foods. Given below is the RDA values for iron -
Now that we’ve covered the basics, we can actually try and understand the reason behind the misconception of iron deficiency in vegan diets.
The source of the myth.
The main difference between heme and non heme iron is that heme iron gets absorbed much easily by our bodies whereas non-heme iron gets absorbed at a much slower rate. This refers to its bioavailability and this is where the myth gets its origin from. People confuse the slow absorption of iron with iron deficiency. However, in reality, this supposed weakness of non heme iron is a blessing in disguise. Let's understand how this slow absorption is actually a benefit.
When slow and steady actually wins the race!
Heme iron has a high bioavailability, which means that it gets absorbed very quickly by the body. This makes maintaining a healthy iron balance very difficult and can lead to iron toxicity if not monitored properly. On the other hand, Non Heme iron has a low bioavailability, which means that it gets absorbed relatively slowly by the body and this in turn, has 2 implications - 1. You’ll have to eat more greens to get more iron into your body and 2. It’s much harder for you to reach the level of iron toxicity as your body can simply eliminate any excess iron which it doesn’t require. Now that we’ve understood how low bioavailability is actually a benefit of non heme iron and not a drawback, let's discuss the other health related aspects of consumption of both of these types of iron.
Heme vs Non Heme Iron - The complete health picture
As stated earlier, Heme iron is found only in animal based products whereas Non Heme Iron is found only in plant based products. Therefore, consumption of either type of iron also brings with it the pros or cons associated with the consumption of animal based and plant based diets respectively. Therefore, through the consumption of animal based products, heme iron also contributes to the following -
- Higher levels of IGF 1 - Animal products have high amounts of the compound IGF 1 which have been scientifically proven to be one of the leading causes of cancer.
- Increase in saturated fat levels - An increase in saturated fats has been proven to increase your risk of heart diseases and cancer.
- Higher risk of cancer - If the above mentioned points weren’t enough, the carcinogenic nature of processed meats has also been proven to increase one’s risk of getting cancer.
In addition to the negative effects of animal product consumption listed above, consumption of heme iron itself has been linked to a higher risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, several types of cancer, Diabetes and gastrointestinal side effects.
On the other hand, consumption of plant based foods is not correlated with any of these health issues. So as it turns out, consumption of non heme iron and by extension a plant based diet, is actually much more beneficial for you than the alternative. Now that we’ve discussed the health aspect of heme and non heme iron in depth, we hope that we’ve managed to convince you about the benefits of consuming a vegan diet for iron intake. To further help you in switching to the better source of iron, we’ll list below some of the most dense vegan food sources of iron.
Top Vegan Sources of Iron (For you to munch on)
- Tofu/Tempeh: Tofu and tempeh are integral and delicious parts of most vegan diets. While one cup of tempeh has 4.5 milligrams of iron, Tofu has an even higher amount of iron content at 6.6 milligrams per half-cup (which, for those of you who missed out on this small nugget of information, is approx. twice that of lentils). So 1 cup of tofu or 2 cups of tempeh a day and once again, those iron deficiency woes that you had, whoooooo they go, right out the window. We’ll put in a few products so that it becomes easier for you to get your hands on some quality tofu and tempeh to try.
- Lentils: Lentils are packed with iron, potassium, fiber, and folate and come in three varieties: brown, green, and red. One cup of lentils contains approx. 6.6 milligrams of iron. So 2 servings of lentils per day and all your iron deficiency woes go out the window!
- Beans: The popularity of beans varies depending on the bean in question, but there is no doubt that Beans are a great source of iron, with Kidney beans having 5.2 milligram / cup, soybeans having 4.5 milligrams / cup and lima beans having 4.5 milligrams / cup. So we’d advise you to fill up on those beans even if you’re called Mr/Mrs Bean thereafter. (We do apologize for that pun but atleast the iron will help you heal faster :P)
- Spinach: We understand that spinach may not be everyone’s favourite comfort food, but take it from Popeye himself, it's a healthy food for sure, clocking in at 6.4 milligrams of iron per one cup of cooked spinach. Plus if Popeye is to be believed, you’ll end up with massive biceps as well so that’s an added incentive for some.
- Cashews: Now this is one which we don't think most of you would’ve thought could end up on this list, but at 6.7g of plant based, non heme iron per 50 grams, it turns out that cashews are not only a delicious dry fruit, but also an iron rich dry fruit, yet another reason to have cashews, for those of you who didn't like its taste already!
- Supplements: While we always advise consuming any nutrient from as natural a source as possible, we do understand that there might be situations or cases where this might not be convenient or even accessible. Hence for such situations, iron supplements are an easy and convenient way of ensuring that you get all the iron that your body needs, if your diet isn’t already iron rich. We’ll again put in a few products for you to quickly choose from in case you wish to avoid the hassle of going through many options.