Whether it be for ethical and environmental beliefs, or the potential health benefits of following a plant-based diet, veganism is growing in popularity. While a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy and meet your nutrient requirements, it is essential you learn to balance your diet with other foods. For example, one important nutrient that vegans (and in fact all women) can easily become deficient in by eliminating animal products is iron. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world!
Heam versus non-heam iron
There are two types of iron found in food, haem iron (found in animal products) and non-haem iron (found in plant products). Although vegan diets are typically high in non-haem iron content, getting adequate iron can still be a challenge. This is because non-haem iron is less bioavailable (we absorb less) than heam iron. Likewise, vegan diets are also often high in phytate and dietary fibre, both which can inhibit iron absorption.
How do we meet our needs then?
By choosing a variety of iron rich foods throughout the day (aim for at least one-two with each meal), it is possible to meet your requirements. Good sources of plant-based iron include foods such as tofu, legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas), dried fruits (apricots, dates and dried figs), nuts (especially cashews and almonds), seeds (pepitas, sunflower, chia and hemp seeds), green leafy vegetables, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereals. Even better, to promote the absorption of iron, add vitamin C rich foods (such as citrus, berries, broccoli, capsicums or cabbage) with iron rich meals. On the flip side, tea and coffee can inhibit absorption, so best to avoid around mealtimes.
If you are vegan, it is also important to get your iron levels checked regularly, and do not self-diagnose. Iron is a mineral that needs to be kept at quite specific levels for your body to function optimally. So, while not enough is detrimental, too much is also not a good thing. You should only take iron supplements if your iron levels have been assessed inadequate by a health professional.