This blog is focused on Iron – one of the most important mineral for the body. We will be discussing the Top 12 Vegetarian sources of Iron to combat iron deficiency. Additionally we will discuss the what foods contain iron, what are benefits of iron, deficiency symptoms and my iron favourite supplements.
Ayurvedic texts discuss the health benefits and the attributes of “Loha” or “Iron”.
Name in Ayurveda: Loha or Lauha
Quality: Dry, rough, heavy and hard.
Taste: Bitter, sweet and astringent
Iron is a nutrient that is necessary to build proteins for red blood cells. Dietary iron comes from both non-vegetarian and vegetarian sources. There are two forms of iron – non-heme and heme iron.
Grains and vegetables contain non-heme iron and animal foods contains both heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is absorbed fast into the small intestine (duodenum). Interestingly heme iron accounts for the least amount of iron coming from a dietary source but heme iron is most bio available form available to the body. Unfortunately non-heme iron is absorbed slowly in the body. Non heme iron is activated by the stomach acid into more absorbable form.
Iron is an extremely important mineral as iron goes to hemoglobin (which is a part of red blood cells), to myoglobin (of muscles), to bone marrow or the liver for storage.
Interactions with other Nutrients:
- Vitamin A and C increases iron absorption from the intestine. Ascorbic acid and citric acid chelates iron and therefore makes it more available.
- Copper is needed for iron absorption, iron metabolism and forming red blood cells.
Increasing Iron Absorption:
- Bitter herbs or spices that increase stomach acid can increase iron absorption in the stomach. Especially from vegetarian sources of iron.
- Dietary intake of foods rich in Vitamin A and C is important for iron absorption.
- Plant sources of iron are dependent on the soil content of iron. If the soil is poor in minerals, so will the foods grown in them.
- Cooking utensils or cookware’s, food preparation methods and various cooking techniques can assist with iron absorption from vegetarian foods. Soaking and sprouting grains, lentils, nuts and seeds, using cast iron cookware, fermentation process and cooking leafy green uncovered have huge impact in iron absorption.
Dietary Sources of Iron:
- Animal meat and organs
- Leafy greens such as, spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens etc.
- Vegetables such as, green peas, brussel sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, beets, tomatoes, fennel etc.
- Grains and lentils
- Beans – soy bean, navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans etc.
- Spices and herbs such as, turmeric, cumin, cloves, curry leaves, basil, oregano, thyme etc.
- Dairy products such as yogurt.
- Sea vegetables
- Iron fortified foods
Note: Plant sources contain only non-heme iron accounts for 90% of dietary iron, unfortunately only ~3-17% is of non-heme iron absorbed in the body. Heme iron or animal flesh contains 40% heme and 60% non-heme iron and accounts for 10-15% of dietary iron. However 70% of heme iron is absorbed in the body.
What Iron does in the Body?
- Hemoglobin formation in the red blood cells and bone marrow (with the help of copper)
- Iron enhances oxygen transport and storage
- Formation of myoglobin that carries oxygen to the muscles.
- Iron is present in all muscle tissues therefore lack of iron weakens the muscle tone and elasticity.
- Assists in cognitive development
- Hormone synthesis and supports menstrual flow
- Regulates body temperature
- Helps in enzymes for energy production. In Ayurvedic texts it is written that iron provides strength.
- Immune functions
- Assists in protein metabolism
- Antioxidant activity
- DNA synthesis
- Supports collagen production
- Iron in the hemoglobin molecule also helps carry carbon dioxide back to the lungs for removal.
- Iron is involved in the synthesis of anumber of essential neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
- Ayurveda states that Iron is really good for vision health.
- In Ayurveda iron is considered important for sexual stamina.
- It also pacifies kidney inflammation.
- Ayurveda text also states good supply of iron can assist in recovering from rheumatoid arthritis.
- Low stamina
- Pale skin
- Canker sores
- Difficulty in concentrating and focusing
- Low immunity
Reasons for Deficiency:
- Low HCl or low stomach acid in the body.
- Phytic acid, oxalic acid, polyphenols and phosphates found in food can decrease non-heme iron absorption.
- Iron and zinc compete for absorption in the body. Therefore high intake of zinc can make the body iron deficient.
- High calcium intake can lower iron absorption. For example milk is high in calcium but low in iron.
- Tannins in coffee and tea also reduce iron absorption.
- Oxalic acid binds with iron therefore inhibits iron absorption. Oxalic acids are present in spinach, kale, beets, nuts, chocolate, tea etc.
- Excessive menstruation in women due to uterine fibroid.
- Conditions like hemorrhoids, ulcers or other bleeding disorders.
- Parasite in the body.
- Blood donation.
- After giving birth.
Disease Formation due to Low Iron:
- Excessive menstrual flow (menorrhagia)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Chronic inflammation
Top 12 Vegetarian Food Sources to Combat Iron Deficiency
Over the years working at many Health Food Stores and learning about how companies are creating products (supplements) that are suitable for vegetarians has taught me a few things about getting iron from plant sources.
As mentioned about foods that contain high Vitamin A and C can help increase iron absorption. Therefore choosing foods that has both the above vitamins as well as iron is crucial for vegetarians. Or adding Vitamin A and C rich foods with iron rich foods can also combat any deficiency problems.
Ayurvedic or Nutritious way of making food supports iron absorption from foods. Eating fermented foods such as sourdough, idli and dosa where the grains and lentils are soaked and fermented assists with iron absorption. Fermented foods contain lactic acid that is beneficial for iron absorption. Cooking leafy greens uncovered and in a cast iron pan will also make iron available from these foods. Ayurveda also recommended eating husked grains and lentils for iron absorption. Adding Vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables such as lemon, lime, green chilies and tomatoes when eating lentils, beans and pea is important for iron absorption.
My top favourite iron rich foods from vegetarian sources are –
Curry Leaves: Curry leaves are a rich source of iron and folic acid. Curry leaves naturally contain both vitamin A and C which can increase iron absorption. The vitamin and mineral composition if this herb makes it a perfect food for hair growth, skin health and helps keep anaemia at bay. South Indian cuisine adds curry leaves to many of their foods. The
Cilantro Leaves: Like curry leaves cilantro leaves are also high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Iron. Therefore beneficial to combat iron deficiency. Cilantro stems and roots are also highly beneficial as they are dense in nutrients. My raisin chutney recipe has many favourable ingredients to overcome iron deficiency. The recipe is shared with the members of Ayurvedic Culinary Program members in module 1.
Parsley Leaves: Similar to curry leaves and cilantro leaves, parsley too contain iron, Vitamin A and C. This herbs is a major detoxifier and supports the kidney functions.
Moringa Leaves: Popularly known as drumstick, moringa is valued for nutrient density. Studies have shown that Moringa leaf has exceptionally high iron content. 100g (3.5oz) of beef liver contains about 10 mg iron, pork liver about 10-20 mg and moringa leaf contains 28 gram of iron per 100 gram. Therefore moringa leaf is used to treat malnourishment in many third world countries. Moringa is very popular in South India, Bangladesh and Sri Lankan cuisine. Both the leaves and the stems (also known as drumstick) is used in many dishes.
Beets: Both beet root and beet greens are amazing for nutrition. Beet greens contains Vitamin A, C, copper as well as Iron. Therefore it becomes a great source of absorbent iron.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes contain Vitamin A, C, iron and copper – all of the favourable nutrients for iron absorption. Sun dried tomatoes contain the most bio available form of iron. 100 grams of sun dried tomatoes contain approximately 9 mg of iron. When sun dried not available I like to add skinned and deseeded tomatoes to my curry’s and salad’s.
Pomegranate: Dietary intake of pomegranate including the seeds and the skin is extremely beneficial for health. Pomegranate contains iron, protein as well fiber. Many cultures instinctively love adding pomegranate to their diet to combat iron deficiency anemia.
Apricot: Apricots are rich in Vitamin A, C, Copper and Iron – therefore it is an ideal food for iron absorption. Dried apricots are the best way to have iron all year round and they are rich sources of fiber.
Blackstrap Molasses: Blackstrap molasses is another rich source non-heme iron. A tablespoon of this food provides approximately 3.5 mg of iron which is approximately 19 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron for adults. Black strap molasses is sometimes taken in conjunction with Kefir to combat various health conditions.
Amaranth: Grains such as amaranth, quinoa and rye are all great sources of iron. Half cup of amaranth contains approximately 9 mg of iron. Ensure grains are presoaked in water or sprouted before consumption to reduce phytic acid.
Mung Beans: All lentils and beans contain phytic acid which may inhibit the absorption of iron. Therefore presoaking them for couple hours to overnight can ensure elimination of this phytic acid. Young green mung beans contain 16% of the daily value of the iron consumption needed for adult women.
Soybeans: Soybean, tofu and tempeh are great sources of non-heme iron. One cup of cooked soy bean contains approximately 8 mg of iron, four ounces of tofu contains 6.4 mg and eight ounces of tempeh contains 4.5 mg of iron. Soybean or soybean derivatives (tofu and tempeh) are considered superfoods that are high in protein, fiber and micro nutrients. However, consider only non-GMO soybeans or certified organic soybean to avoid GMO. Women with estrogen dominance also reduce intake of soybeans.
My Top 3 Iron Supplements
In Canada I feel that the following the one of the best formula’s for iron supplementation. You must ask your primary health care practitioner for the right one for you.