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Iron-Rich Whole Foods

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A guest blog post by Andrea Lewis, from Holistic Health & Living. 

The importance of iron in our diet cannot be overstated, but the myth of the weakened, iron deprived vegan needs to be put to rest. Despite popular belief, iron is not an inherent part of animals and their products. Mammals, including humans, cannot manufacture iron in the body; we must all obtain iron from dietary sources. Beef and poultry are considered the top animal sources of iron, yet, neither cows nor chickens eat other animals. So, where do they get their iron from? The same place that humans can get theirs: Plants.

Iron-Rich Whole Foods

  • Morel mushrooms (Morchella) – 8mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Chanterelle mushrooms – 1.9mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Spinach – 0.8mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Swiss chard – 0.6mg per cup (66grams)
  • Pumpkin seeds – 2.1mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Squash seeds – 2.1mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Beet greens – 1.1mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Kale – 1mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Olives – 0.1mg per olive (3.2grams in weight) 
  • Leeks – 1.4mg per cup (66grams) 
  • Mulberries – 1.2mg per cup (66grams) 

Many other whole foods contain iron as well, but these contain relatively high amounts of the mineral per serving, can be eaten raw and are commonplace in grocery stores and farmer's markets across the country.

The Importance of Iron

Our bodies need iron to manufacture hemoglobin, the hematin and globulin compound that transports oxygen throughout the body and gives blood its red hue. Iron is an essential cofactor in many important biological processes, and is particularly critical to a healthy immune system, as well as neurological health and emotional well-being. According to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition (January 1992), “Natural killer (NK) cell activity is impaired in iron-deficient rats. Natural killer cells destroy tumor cells; therefore, iron-deficient rats may be less able to combat cancer growth. Natural killer cell cytotoxicity, both basal and interferon gamma (IFN gamma)-stimulated, was studied in moderately and severely iron-deficient rats challenged with the carcinogen 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA).” Researchers have known for a long time that iron deficiency can alter brain development and functioning, but recent studies have shown that iron deficiency can also cause anxiety and panic attacks, by creating the symptoms of a panic attack. Fortunately, when iron levels are brought back into the normal range most of those symptoms quickly subside, including heart palpitations. Unfortunately, fixing neuronal issues caused by iron deficiency is not so easy for infants and very young children. According to 'Iron Status and Neural Functioning', published in Annual Review of Nutrition, volume 23 (July 2003), “Iron deficiency in early life is associated with delayed development as assessed by a number of clinical trials using similar global scales of development; this poor development during infancy persists in most cases after iron therapy has corrected iron status. If iron deficiency occurs in preschool and older children, the consequences appear reversible with treatment.” So, there is hope for children after a certain age.

Signs of Iron Deficiency

  • Feeling tired, despite getting a sufficient amount of sleep 
  • Headaches 
  • Pale skin 
  • Brittle nails 
  • Frequent infections 
  • Chest pains 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Lightheaded, feeling dizzy Loss of appetite 
  • Restless legs syndrome 
  • Craving non-nutritive substances (ex: ice, dirt, starch)

At the start of an iron deficiency the symptoms may be very subtle, and sometimes they're nonexistent, until the deficiency worsens. This delay in symptom manifestation is due in part to hemoglobin recycling. In hemoglobin recycling the body recycles aged red blood cells (RBC) by breaking them down into hematin and globulin once again, releasing the iron from the hematin and further breaking the remaining elements down, while the iron is transported to the various tissues for storage and the bone marrow to manufacture new hemoglobin for the next generation of RBCs.

Many of the symptoms of an iron deficiency are a direct result of oxygen deprivation, because no matter how deeply one inhales, if there's an iron deficiency (which means a hemoglobin deficiency as well), less oxygen will make it into the bloodstream and one will feel out of air. Not sure how that could be? I'll explain: When we inhale, the air is drawn into our lungs where blood, pumped from the heart, mixes with the oxygen and carries it into the bloodstream and into every cell in the body. After making its deliveries to all the cells, the oxygen-depleted blood is then sent back to the heart to begin again. However, without a sufficient amount of hemoglobin in the RBCs to transport the much needed oxygen throughout the body to each and every cell, we get an oxygen shortage and a triage situation ensues. The brain, of course, always has priority status when such resources become minimal; which is why headaches and dizziness may be indicators of a prolonged iron deficiency.

How Much Iron Is Needed?

How much iron one needs is largely dependent on age. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), “Because of their rapid growth, infants and toddlers need more iron than older children”. Pregnant and lactating women have greater iron needs as well, for the obvious reason, which is why their OBGYN will usually recommend taking an iron supplement to ensure that they are getting enough. Blood loss may also increase one's need for additional iron, regardless of the cause. The rest of us can usually get all of the iron we need from our diet.

The recommend daily allowance of iron for infants 0-6 months is considered “unknown”, but the Adequate Intake (AI) value, which is the bare minimum, is 0.27mg per day. So, keep the above CDC quote in mind when reading the following RDA list, as it regards very young children.

Recommended Daily Allowance (by age and gender): 

  • Infants 7-12 months old – 11mg per day 
  • Children 1-3 years old – 7mg per day 
  • Children 4-8 years old – 10mg per day 
  • Children 9-13 years old – 8mg per day 
  • Males 14-18 years old – 11mg per day 
  • Females 14-18 years old – 15mg per day 
  • Males 19-30 years old – 8mg per day 
  • Females 19-30 years old – 18mg per day 
  • Males 31-50 years old – 8mg per day 
  • Females 31-50 years old – 18mg per day 
  • Males 51-70 years old – 8mg per day 
  • Females 51-70 years old – 8mg per day 
  • Males >70 years old – 8mg per day 
  • Females >70 years old – 8mg per day 
  • Pregnant women 14-50 years old – 27mg per day 
  • Lactating women 14-18 years old – 10mg per day 
  • Lactating women 19-50years old – 9mg per day

As you can see, after a certain age, females require more iron than males, but then their need decreases to male levels after menopause. So, women over 50 and still menstruating will need to continue consuming 18mg of iron per day until they've reached menopause. I've come across articles that recommended 18mg of iron per day for everyone, irrespective of age, gender or other considerations and, obviously, this amount would be too much for some and not enough for others. One should always take their individual circumstances into account and try to get enough iron in their diet without overdoing it.

As I mentioned earlier, hemoglobin recycling restores some of the iron previously used to create hemoglobin for RBCs (heme iron), and the RDA for iron is created with this fact in mind. Ingesting more iron than recommended is unnecessary, and getting too much is potentially harmful. Just as not enough iron will impair one's health and compromise immunity, getting too much can cause health issues and lead to toxicity. This is why it's always better to eat well and get one's nutrients from diet, whenever possible; it's difficult to over-consume most micronutrients through diet alone. But another important reason to get nutrients from one's diet is nutrient synergy. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and, in this case, without consuming sufficient amounts of vitamin C, iron from both food and supplementation (nonheme iron) cannot be properly absorbed and used by the body. Fortunately, on a typical raw vegan diet, one can get plenty of vitamin C and, as you can see from the list above, plenty of iron as well, without reaching toxic levels. So, there's no excuse for any vegan – whether raw or cooked – to be weak from iron deprivation. 



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