Iron is vital to life. Every cell in the human body contains iron. Oxygenation of tissues and cells is accomplished by iron contained in red blood cells which carry oxygenated blood throughout the body and pick up carbon dioxide to be excreted. The human body uses iron to enhance immune system functioning, produce energy and increase oxygen distribution throughout the organ systems. Iron is available in two forms, heme-iron and nonheme-iron. Heme-iron is contained in animal flesh. For those of us who choose a vegan life style, nonheme-iron, found in plants is what we need.
Dark, leafy green vegetables such as spinach and chard are good sources of iron. These should be organic and fresh in order to obtain greatest benefits. Herbs and spices such as thyme and turmeric are also high in iron. Both can be added to salad dressings on a daily basis.
Signs of needing more iron include lowered resistance to infections, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, brittle nails, a sense of apathy and feelings of depression. Increased iron intake through natural foods is key to preventing these low iron symptoms. The body needs to maintain about four grams of iron to function well.
Iron in the body is very unlike other minerals. Unless a person bleeds, iron stays in the system and is reused. The life of a red blood cell (RBC) is about 90 days. When RBCs die, the iron in them attaches to younger red cells. Women during their menstrual years, people with bleeding disorders and those who ingest substances that interfere with the absorption of iron (antacids) are most susceptible to losing iron. These groups of people need increased sources of iron in their diets. Failure to maintain adequate iron amounts in the body results in anemia, or low iron in the blood. This condition affects the entire body. In people with low iron counts, the body produces less hemoglobin (hgb), the oxygen carrying component of the RBC. As a result, less oxygen is transported to the tissues. Myoglobin is a molecule much like hgb except it carries oxygen to muscle cells, particularly to the heart and skeletal muscles. People who choose a vegan lifestyle can be prone to this type of anemia.
In order to avoid anemia, vegans need to take daily care to find edible sources of iron, Vitamin C, and copper. Vitamin C can increase the iron absorption from foods by two times. An adequate copper level in the blood is critical to the transport of iron throughout the body.
In addition to the previously mentioned high-iron foods, there are many other options for increasing daily iron intake. String beans, turnip and mustard greens, shiitake mushrooms, romaine lettuce, tofu and blackstrap molasses are very good sources of iron. Not quite as high in iron but still beneficial are asparagus, broccoli, chick peas, leeks, lentils, brussel sprouts and sea vegetables such as kelp.
Here are just a few examples of foods high in iron, and I’ve been realistic on serving sizes. For example, you will often hear people say that parsley is high in iron. Well, yes it is, per 100g. But parsley is so light in weight that you’d have to eat five packs for it to make it onto the list below.
Pumpkin seeds, 1/2 cup, 10 mg iron
Dried apricots/peaches, 100g, 6 mg
Cashews, 1/2 cup, 5 mg
Pine kernels, 1/2 cup, 4 mg
Sunflower seeds, 1/2 cup, 4 mg
Almonds, 1/2 cup, 3 mg
Spinach, 100g, 3 mg
Sea veg (generally), 100g, 2-3 mg
Kale, 100g, 2 mg
Walnuts, 1/2 cup, 2 mg
Sprouted lentils, 1/2 cup, 2 mg
(Source: USDA Nutrient Database)
Raw fooders who eat at least some of the foods on this list regularly should have no problem in making the RNI of 8 grams, as most of the other foods eaten in a week will also be contributing to iron requirements.
High fruit diets
Fresh fruits highest in iron are berries (eg raspberries, blackberries) at 1 mg per 100g. Fruits such as bananas, mangoes, papayas and tomatoes contain on average 0.3 mg per fruit. But I know people who eat a lot of bananas! 10 bananas would give 3 mg of iron, and therefore be a significant source of iron. I have a passion for persimmons (0.6 mg) and could easily eat several. Five persimmons would yield 3 mg of iron.
So those who follow high-fruit diets, who have fruit in quantity, as ‘meals’, should have no problems obtaining all the iron they need, even if they eat very little of the foods in the ‘high iron’ list.
And, as Vitamin C helps iron absorption, high-fruit diets win all round (and, incidentally, the fact that raw fooders in general eat more Vitamin C counterbalances the claim from some that iron from animal foods is more easily absorbed than that from vegan sources).
Remember that cooking reduces nutrient levels including iron. Raw harvests must be carefully cleaned and it’s important to avoid harvesting in areas where pesticides are in use. The more iron-rich foods that you eat in an uncooked state, the better your iron level will be.