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Navigating Iron Deficiencies As A Vegan & The Best Foods To Eat

The decision to go vegan is never one that is taken lightly. Our culture sees us encouraged to eat meat and it can be challenging for those that seek to deviate. One thing that can be said with certainty is that our culture has it wrong!

There are numerous benefits to deciding to be vegan. These include:

  • Protecting against heart disease

  • Preventing obesity

  • Reducing hypertension

  • Controlling diabetes

  • Protecting the environment

The vegan diet is so good for our health as it is rich in fibre, antioxidants, plant compounds, folate and much more. The one area where some vegans tend to struggle is iron. Iron deficiencies can cause unwanted side effects for those following this way of life.

However, the truth is that no one has to put up with low iron levels and all that entails. We’re going to explore ways to avoid any deficiency by eating iron-rich foods. We’ll also be taking a look at the symptoms of low iron and why, as a vegan, you don’t have to just accept this.

What is iron and why does it matter?

Iron deficiencies are not just an issue faced by those who follow a vegan diet. Anaemia, caused by low iron levels impacts 500 million people around the world. The lack of this important mineral can have some serious consequences. When you consider the role that iron plays in the body, it becomes clear why it is so important. The things that we need iron for include:

  • Growth and development

  • Making haemoglobin

  • This is a protein found in your red blood cells and it carries oxygen around your body

  • Making myoglobin which helps to provide oxygen to your muscles

  • The creation of some hormones

There is no getting away from the fact that your body needs iron to function properly. When the decision is made to ditch meat, and follow a vegan diet, it is important to keep your levels of this mineral so that iron deficiencies are avoided.

As you will soon see, there are plenty of iron-rich foods to help you to do this.

What are iron deficiencies and what can they lead to?

As the name suggests, iron deficiencies are the result of a lack of iron. The exact amount we need to avoid low iron levels will vary. The amount needed depends on age, gender, and whether or not you are pregnant.

Several sources can provide a guide as to how much iron you will need. If you consistently fall short when it comes to your iron intake, then you find yourself suffering from iron deficiency anaemia. The name certainly points to what is going on in the body with this condition It is all about low iron levels. This leads to a lack of healthy red blood cells meaning that there is difficulty with transporting oxygen to where it is needed in the body. When iron deficiencies reach this stage, it is common that you will be recommended to take a supplement. While a supplement can help to alleviate low iron levels, the good news is that these do not have to be a permanent requirement. Your focus, instead, needs to be on iron-rich foods.

What are the symptoms of low iron levels?

Knowing what iron deficiencies can lead to, you will likely want to have an idea of where you stand and what your levels are. The only way to know for sure is to visit your GP and ask for a blood test. This test will come back with your exact iron levels so that you know if you’ll need to make any changes.

Of course, no one wants constant blood tests, if they can be avoided, and medical practitioners will no doubt have their limits when it comes to how many they will carry out. That’s why it is important to keep an eye out for any telltale signs. Key symptoms that suggest low iron levels include:

  • Weakness

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Brittle nails

  • Pale skin

  • Poor appetite- more common in youngsters

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fast heartbeat

  • Strange cravings that can see people eating ice and even dirt

  • Cold hands and feet

  • An inflamed and/or sore tongue

The most iron-rich foods

For those who eat animal products, this is where they will derive the majority of their iron. They will, however, also find iron in plant-based foods. For vegans, such products are the only option. The problem for vegans and iron deficiencies is that there are actually two types of iron:

Heme Iron

This type of iron is what is commonly found in meat products. The plus point when it comes to heme iron is that your body finds it easy to absorb.

Non-heme Iron

This is the iron that a vegan will rely on as it is found within their diet. The issue here is that non-heme iron is a little trickier for your body to absorb. When looking at the two types of iron, the issue faced by vegans becomes a little clearer. It is not just about a lack of iron in a diet: it is the type of iron and how the body deals with it. For this reason, it is important to increase consumption of the most iron-rich foods.

These include:

  • Whole wheat bread

  • Cereals

  • Pasta

  • Quinoa

  • Oatmeal

  • Avocado

  • Cooked spinach

  • Cooked mushrooms

  • Baked potatoes

  • Legumes

  • Lentils

  • Soybeans

How to avoid the need for an iron supplement

Of course, iron-rich foods are vital to avoid iron deficiencies. However, as we have seen, the body struggles to absorb the type of iron that a vegan will come across. This means that, if you want to avoid a supplement- then you need to give your body a helping hand.

If you combine your iron-rich food with foods that are also rich in vitamin C, your body will naturally absorb more of the iron.

Foods worth paring with your iron-rich foods include:

  • Citrus fruits

  • Citrus juice

  • Broccoli

  • Red pepper

  • Kiwi

  • Strawberries

  • Tomatoes

  • Chard

Foods and drinks that will make it even harder for your body to absorb iron include:

  • Dairy products

  • Calcium supplements

  • Beer

  • Wine

  • Coffee

  • Tea

  • Food that is high in dietary fibre

By combining the right foods with your iron-rich diet you can ensure that you benefit the most and, all being well, avoid the need for supplements!

Love, Sarah xoxoxo

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A 30 something woman navigating life, sharing posts focussing on mental health, midsize fashion, self-care routines and life as a vegan.

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