Ferritin and Iron for Vegans: A Guide to Maintaining Optimal Iron Levels on a Plant-Based Diet
Looking for ways to get enough iron on a raw vegan or vegan diet?
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One common question that comes up frequently in the raw vegan diet is about ferritin levels, specifically low ferritin levels, which indicate inadequate iron stores in the body.
We will explore the importance of iron, the challenges vegans may face in maintaining optimal ferritin levels, and practical tips to increase iron absorption from plant-based sources.
What’s the Big Deal about Ferritin and Iron?
Iron is a crucial mineral that plays a vital role in our bodies. It is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout our body, supporting red blood cell formation, metabolic processes, and DNA synthesis.
Ferritin is the iron storage protein in our bodies, and low ferritin levels may indicate inadequate iron stores, though not necessarily a full-blown iron deficiency.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron is 18 mg for adult females up through menopause and around 10 mg for adult males and postmenopausal females.
Heme Iron vs. Non-Heme Iron
Non-heme iron, which is the type of iron found in plant-based sources, is not as bioavailable as heme iron, which is found in animal-based sources.
This means that vegans and other plant-based individuals may need to consume more than the RDA of iron to account for the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron.
One of the primary challenges for plant-based eaters is the lower bioavailability of iron from plant-based sources. Non-heme iron, which is found in plant-based foods, is not as easily absorbed by the body compared to heme iron from animal-based foods.
This means that even if you consume iron-rich plant-based foods, you may still be at risk of low ferritin levels if you do not take steps to optimize iron absorption.
However, Matt Bennett says the following about non-heme iron:
“Iron from animal products is referred to as heme iron and is absorbed into the body in a much less controlled fashion.
Consuming heme iron puts a person at a higher risk of iron overload, resulting in increased oxidative damage and chronic disease over time. This is why non-heme iron is the ideal form of iron to consume for long-term health and longevity.”Matt Bennett from MyRawIntuition.com
I highly recommend his books for anything related to nutrients and transitioning to a raw vegan diet.
What Causes Low Ferritin Levels?
There are several factors that can contribute to low ferritin levels in vegans and other individuals, including menstrual losses in females, iron losses in sweat during heavy exercise, and inadequate intake of iron-containing foods due to disordered eating.
Other factors include dieting, high activity levels, and consuming iron-rich foods with foods or beverages that can impair iron absorption, such as coffee, tea, red wine, calcium-rich foods, and calcium supplements. Additionally, health conditions such as Celiac Disease and Crohn’s Disease can also affect iron absorption.
Ways to Raise Ferritin Levels on a Raw Vegan Diet
Fortunately, there are several practical strategies that can help vegans and plant-based individuals optimize their ferritin levels:
- Pair iron-rich vegan foods with a vitamin C source: Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron from plant-based foods. Some examples of iron-rich (cooked) vegan foods include lentils, tempeh, tofu, kale, cashews, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and leafy greens. And for raw vegan sources of iron, there are sprouted lentils, “raw” cashews, sundried raisins, raw pumpkin seeds, sprouted quinoa, kale, and leafy greens. Pairing these iron-rich foods with a vitamin C source, such as oranges, bell peppers, broccoli, or berries, can significantly improve iron absorption.
- Avoid consuming iron-rich meals with coffee or tea: Tannins present in coffee and tea can inhibit iron absorption from plant-based foods. It’s best to consume iron-rich meals at least 1.5 hours away from coffee or tea to optimize iron absorption. If you haven’t quit caffeine, here is your motivation!
- Avoid consuming iron-rich foods with calcium-rich foods or supplements: Calcium can interfere with iron absorption, so it’s recommended to space out consumption of calcium-rich foods and iron-rich plant-based foods by a few hours.
- Cast iron skillet: This suggestion may be perceived as controversial. For vegans who heat-process their food, some dieticians recommend cooking meals in a cast iron skillet, which can increase the iron content of the food, as some of the iron from the skillet can be absorbed during cooking. I personally choose not to utilize this method.
- Iron or Ferritin Supplements: For those open to supplementation, consult a qualified healthcare provider or naturopath for proper guidance.
There are plenty of ways to ensure adequate iron intake and maintain healthy ferritin levels with a whole food, raw vegan diet without needing supplementation. But it’s an option.
By incorporating iron-rich plant-based foods into your diet and pairing them with vitamin C sources, you can enhance iron absorption in your body.
Generally speaking, you will accomplish this without even trying – as long as you have enough diversity – and enough healthy fruits and veggies in your diet.
And remember, be mindful of not consuming iron-rich foods with coffee, tea, calcium-rich foods, or calcium supplements.
So Do You Really Need Iron Supplements?
Sometimes an iron supplement may be necessary, especially if iron levels are severely depleted.
However, it’s important to work with a healthcare provider to determine the right dosage and timing for supplementation and to regularly monitor iron levels through blood tests.
Remember, maintaining adequate ferritin levels is crucial for overall health, as iron plays a vital role in various bodily functions. It’s essential to be proactive in ensuring sufficient iron intake, especially for those following a raw vegan or plant-based diet, to prevent iron deficiency and associated health issues.
If you’re a raw vegan or plant-based eater and have concerns about your ferritin levels or iron intake, there are practical steps you can take to optimize your iron status.
Incorporate iron-rich plant-based foods into your diet, pair them with vitamin C sources, avoid consuming iron-rich foods with substances that inhibit iron absorption, and work with a naturopath or qualified, plant-based healthcare provider if iron supplementation is needed.
See our other posts for more answers to the most common raw vegan FAQs.
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Vegan Society
- Vegetarian Resource Group
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association
These sources are reputable and widely recognized for their evidence-based information on nutrition, health, and dietary guidelines.
It’s always recommended to consult trusted sources and seek guidance from qualified healthcare professionals or registered dietitians for personalized nutrition advice.