Sunday, December 16, 2007

Iron, Men and Women

So, I recently got a little bit of a slap in the face.  I had some blood work done at the doctor's office, and my iron count came back on the low side - it's still in the normal range, but barely.  I hate to admit this in a public forum because I don't want to accidentally reinforce a stereotype that it's too hard to get necessary nutrients with a vegan diet. I know (and you know) that it's simply not true.  There are plenty of omnivores who are iron deficient, as well, and there are plenty of vegans who aren't.  I did have to swallow my pride a little, because I thought I was doing a pretty job meeting my iron needs. 

I immediately turned to Davis and Melina's book, Becoming Vegan, which is basically my nutritional bible. They write that it's actually quite common for vegans to have iron stores in the low range of normal, noting that having low but normal stores is rarely a problem on its own.  It can, however, become a problem "in the face of iron stresses, for example heavy menstrual losses, illness, or in some parts of the world, hookworm infection."  I suspect heavy training, especially running, places considerable stress on iron stores, as well, right?  Meeting 100% of RDA requirements of iron may not be enough for vegans because, as Davis and Melina point out, "Vegans and other vegetarians may need higher intakes of dietary iron to compensate for the lower bioavailability of iron from plant foods." 

I also learned that spinach, which was accounting for much of my iron intake in the form of green smoothies, is not a useful source of iron because it's high in oxolates that prevent absorption.  On the other hand, combining iron intake with sources of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and tomatoes, can boost absorption.

To raise my iron stores, I'm incorporating more of the following foods into my daily diet.  
- Lentils
- Garbanzo beans/chickpeas
- Navy/pinto/kidney/adzuki beans
- Quinoa
- Pumpkin seeds

What do the rest of you do to meet your iron needs?  Any advice?  I know some of you have had more experience with this than me, and I'd love to hear what you have to say (in comments or as a separate post).

I'll leave you with that question and a couple of recent recipes from my food blog:


Christie said...

I was born anemic. My mom is anemic too. Regular iron supplements do not work for me. They never did. They thought my mom wasn't giving me the stuff. Anyway, at a very young age, I was told that it's a condition that I cannot correct (and it didn't help that I got heavy periods once puberty hit). I grew up omni and ate of LOTS of beans. That wasn't enough to help.

In June, I started taking Floradix. You can check it out here. They also have a non-honey version called Floravital. Maybe your situation isn't that serious. But it definitely does work. I couldn't run without it.

Crystal said...

When I first went vegan I had a small issue with iron deficiency, but I haven't had a problem since. It is one of the ones that I'm most conscious of, though. I mean, really, why do people always ask about PROTEIN when iron is way more difficult to get and absorb. Quinoa is my favorite super food. It's a great substitute for rice in stir-fries. Personally, I take a multivitamin with iron in it. Apparently it can be hard on the stomach, but I've never [noticeably] had a problem with it. Absorption, from what I understand, is the tricky part for meat-eaters and herbivores alike. Vitamin C is necessary for the iron to be absorbed so make sure you're eating fruits along with your higher-iron foods and you should be fine. Maybe get tested again in a couple of months to make sure you're on the right track. That's what I'd do anyway. As a woman, we really need to make sure that our iron levels don't dip too far because of our natural iron-loss each month.

Good luck! Keep us posted. :o)

Vegan Run Amok said...

My iron levels improved, predictably, after moving from a cheesatarian to a vegan diet, but they still tend to run low no matter how well I'm eating. I think there may be a genetic aspect to it.

Anyway, not a whole foods solution, but my primary care doc has me take, as a precaution, a prenatal multivitamin instead of a regular one because a prenatal one contains more iron. I try to take it first thing in the morning with a glass of orange juice or with a smoothie to promote absorption and I also try to be sure to take my calcium supplements later in the day or, better, in the evening, since calcium blocks iron absorption.

I also, and sorry if TMI, take BCPs continuously now to stop my period, which was always quite heavy, and I'm pretty sure this has helped as well. (I totally understand the reservations other people may have about hormonal interventions, though, and I didn't stop mine solely or even mainly because of the iron issue but rather because mine was so painful and sick-making as to be totally life-disrupting.)

VeganHeartDoc said...

In addition to the foods mentioned in your post, choose iron-fortified foods, like cereals. Also, consume your iron with foods rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, to improve your absorption of iron.

Continous birth control pills, like Vegan Run Amok mentioned, can stop periods altogether, and thus loss of iron with bleeding.

Matt! said...

It's worth repeating that Vitamin C significantly increases the absorption of non-heme (the kind find in plant foods) iron. Try to have a Vitamin C source at every meal that contains iron.
Those oxalates in spinach will get you every time; they even inhibit iron from other sources eaten at the same meal. As do compounds in tea and coffee, so try to avoid consuming those with your meals. Want an old-school way to increase iron? Use a cast-iron skillet. It's the same iron our body needs and it gets into the food we cook in it, especially citrus foods (which are also high in Vitamin C- it's win-win!).
I don't have time to pull up the studies, but there is some evidence that low-normal iron stores may be protective against cardiovascular diseases.

Christie said...

I think everything should be made in a cast iron skillet. That's the only way I'll make cornbread.

Veg*Triathlete said...

Thanks to everyone for the input. I'm going to try to incorporate all these whole foods solutions - and using a cast iron skillet. I think I'm also just going to bite the bullet and take a supplement, too.

Steven Herron said...

I am training for my second attempt at the Ford Lake Placid Iron Man in 2008. In race nutrition is what prevented me from finishing it in 2007 - I overloaded my body with calories in too short a timeframe.

I weigh more now than I did training for this years race and wondered if a Vegan diet might help me get the nutrition I need while helping me lose weight. Thought?

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