Vegan Eating 101: Iron, man

Going vegan is indeed a noble pursuit. Environmental benefits aside, it’s an important part of the yogic practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. That said, from a physiological standpoint, human beings are omnivorous, which means we’re equipped to consume – and benefit from - animal products. There are several nutrients that meat eaters get in abundance that vegans and vegetarians need to be more mindful of.  With this in mind, I’d like to spend some time looking at these nutrients and how to work them into your cruelty-free diet. Today, let’s talk about iron.

Iron is a mineral that’s an important component of two proteins, hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin, found in red blood cells, carries oxygen to your body’s tissues. The lesser-known myoglobin also helps provide oxygen to muscles.

The adult body tends to hold onto iron, so we don’t need much of it. The RDA is 18 mg. The exception to this is menstruation. Since the bulk of your iron is stored in red blood cells, women with heavy periods experience significant iron loss, about 30-45mg a month, so they typically want to eat a little more iron during these times.

There are two kinds of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. The body absorbs heme, which comes from meat, better than nonheme, which comes from vegetable sources. Fortunately, there’s an easy trick to increasing nonheme iron absorbency: consume it with vitamin C. Conversely, try to avoid tea with your iron sources because the tannins can inhibit absorption.

And a quick note to all you ovo-lacto vegetarians out there: the heme iron comes from blood and muscle, so eggs and dairy only contain nonheme iron, so these tips apply to you too!

Armed with all this information, you’re probably asking, “What are these vegan iron sources you’re recommending?” Primarily, I’d say beans and lentils – black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, kidney beans, you name it. Soybeans are particularly high in iron, but they also contain amino acids that inhibit its absorption. However, if you ferment the beans, the bioavailability goes up, so if you’re feeling soyish, look to tempeh, miso, and natto.

Kale and mushrooms can also be good sources of iron, as can whole-wheat flour, oats, rye flour, and everyone’s favorite faux-grain, quinoa. Although people often associate spinach with iron, it’s actually not a great choice because it contains oxalic acid, which limits iron absorption.

Of course, iron-fortified foods like breakfast cereals will trump all these other sources for amount-of-iron per serving, but I’m not a huge fan of modified foods unless necessary. Why would you want a big bowl of human-enriched flakes when you could get a hit of the natural stuff from a serving of oatmeal and the vitamin C-packed, seasonal fruit of your choice? (Oranges in the winter, melon in the summer.)

Now that I write that, I think I know what I’m going to make for breakfast tomorrow. You can have your bacon and sausage. I’ll have my morning bowl of iron without the heart attack on the side, thank you.

About Denis Faye:

Starting out as “weight challenged,” Denis Faye dropped 50 pounds following a 5-year jaunt through Australia, a trip that helped him become the extreme fitness and sports enthusiast he is today. Along with his fitness endeavors, Denis has been a pescatarian for over 17 years and was a vegetarian for 5. He's been a professional journalist for 20 years, writing for Surfer, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Outside, Wired, Men's Health, Men's Journal, GQ, Surfer, and Pacific Longboarder. Denis writes for Beachbody, which provides effective and popular exercise programs including the well known P90x program.

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