Vegan Foods

What you can do to improve your iron absorption

Iron is an essential mineral that we all need to feel energized every day.

“Iron helps carry oxygen around the body,” Karissa Deutrom, a registered dietitian, tells SBS. “But if your iron stores are low and you don’t have as much oxygen in your body, you will feel quite tired. Your immune system will also become very vulnerable to colds, flu and viruses.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that eight per cent of pre-school children, 12 per cent of pregnant women and 15 per cent of non-pregnant women of childbearing age in Australia suffer from anaemia. Anemia is also very common in Aboriginal communities.

Iron deficiency is the main cause of anemia.

“Your immune system will also become very vulnerable to colds, flu and viruses.”

While eating an iron-rich diet is essential if you have iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia, you may also need to take note of how your body absorbs the iron you consume. Some people, such as those with celiac disease, may have an inability to absorb iron.

Even if you absorb iron well, Deutrom points out that what you eat and the combination of foods you consume in a single sitting can influence your iron absorption. “What’s really interesting is that we only absorb a small amount of iron from our diet,” she says. “We absorb about 10% of iron from plant sources and 18% from animal sources.

“So we want to prioritize iron-rich foods in our diets and eat them in a way that maximizes our iron absorption.”

Foods that inhibit iron absorption

Here are some food combinations you should be aware of if you have an iron-related health issue.

Wine, tea and coffee

Red wine might be fine after work, but it might not be the best drink to have with your dinner.

Deutrom explains that wine (especially red), tea, coffee, and some plant-based foods contain antioxidants called polyphenols.

Polyphenols have been shown to inhibit the absorption of iron from plant sources (non-heme iron) when consumed with an iron-rich meal.

“The tannins (water-soluble polyphenols) in a tea, coffee, or red wine can all block iron absorption.

“My advice is to drink red wine, tea, or coffee at least an hour before or after eating an iron-rich meal.”

“We only absorb about 10% of iron from plant sources and 18% from animal sources.”

milk and cheese

Some studies show that dietary calcium sources can also reduce iron absorption.

“When you pour cow’s milk over an iron-rich cereal, some of the calcium in the milk actually blocks iron absorption from the cereal.”

Deutrom says this is something to keep in mind, especially if you’re consuming a key source of dietary iron at breakfast.

Beans and nuts

Phytic acid or phytate is a naturally occurring compound found in beans, seeds, nuts, and grains.

Although these foods are common sources of non-heme iron, the phytates they contain may decrease your iron absorption.

“Phytates actually block iron absorption. That’s why these foods contain a lot of iron to begin with. But that’s also why we only absorb such a small fraction of iron from them.

Foods that Maximize Iron Absorption

The good news is that you can circumvent these iron-inhibiting interactions by combining dietary iron sources with foods that actually boost iron absorption.

Carrots and sweet potatoes

Research suggests that foods rich in beta-carotene may prevent the inhibitory effect of phytates on iron absorption.

A famous journal study from Venezuela shows that beta-carotene foods tripled iron absorption from rice-based meals. Iron absorption was nearly doubled when beta-carotene was consumed with wheat and corn.

Beta-carotene is found in yellow, orange, and green leafy fruits and vegetables (carrots, spinach, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and more). The more intense the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more beta-carotene it contains. Once consumed via fruits and vegetables, the body transforms the pigment into vitamin A.

“I would point out that while adding beta-carotene-rich foods increases iron absorption, some populations need to be careful about how much vitamin A they consume. Pregnant women and women seeking to become pregnant are a group that are generally advised to avoid high intakes of vitamin A-rich foods.”

Tomatoes and broccoli

Studies show that pairing iron-rich food sources with other foods containing high levels of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) will improve the iron absorbed from that meal.

The effect will be greater when vitamin C is combined with a source of iron of plant origin (non-heme), stimulating the absorption of iron.

Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, white potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and tomatoes.

“An example of a vegan or vegetarian food combination that boosts iron absorption would be a piece of wholemeal bread with baked beans in a tomato sauce,” she says.

“Whole grain toast and baked beans are excellent plant-based sources of iron. Since they are encased in a tomato sauce, it helps improve fat absorption in this meal. If you then follow this meal with a piece of citrus fruit, rich in vitamin C, it could further improve iron absorption.

Finally, if you are still in doubt about what to eat, consult a registered dietitian for individual dietary assistance. If you suffer from iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia, always consult your doctor for personalized medical advice.

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