Healthy eating habits/Optimising iron intake in a plant based diet
The following page provides a guide on the importance of iron and how individuals following a plant based diet can optimise their iron intake.
What is iron?
Iron is not just a metal, it is an essential mineral vital for many body functions.
The role of iron
1. Oxygen transport- Iron is an important part of a protein found in red blood cells. This protein allows red bloods cells to bind to oxygen. The oxygen in then able to travel through out the body in the blood. This accounts for 2/3 of the iron in the body.
2. Iron is also part of protein found in the muscles. Similar to iron's function in the blood, this protein in allows oxygen to be carried in the muscle where it is used to create energy and allow movement.
3. Iron makes up a part of many enzymes, that have various functions in the body including immune function.
Haem and non-haem iron
Haem iron or animal iron: This type of iron is contained in animal flesh. Haem iron is absorbed 50% better than Non-Heam iron.
Non-Haem iron: This iron is found in both animal and plant based foods.
Non-haem iron is the only type of iron that vegetarians consume. For this reason it is important that those following a plant based diet are careful to ensure they are consuming enough iron.
The Recommended Daily Intakes, as suggested by the Australian Health and Medical Research Council, for iron are as follows:
Women: 18mg 
If iron stores are low over a long period of time this may lead to a condition know as iron deficiency anemia. Anemia is a condition in which the body red blood cell count becomes deficient. Lack of red blood cells means that the blood cannot carry enough oxygen around the body.
- Symptoms of iron deficiency :
- Brittle nails
- Soreness and swelling of the tongue
- Cracks on the side of the mouth
- Restless leg syndrome
Symptoms of anemia (long term iron deficiency):
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Chest pain
- Reduced immune function
Can you have too much iron?
Yes, too much iron in the body can be toxic, the name of the condition characterised by excessive iron stores is haemochromatosis. In the long term haemochromatosis can cause failure of the organs such as the liver, pancreas and the heart. The maximum safe level of intake for adults is 45mg a day.
Food sources of iron
Many vegetarian foods are good sources of iron, this includes pulses, legumes, dark leafy green vegetables, grain, cereals and dried fruits.
|Iron rich foods||Serve size||Amount of iron (mg)|
|Black beans||1 cup||3.4|
|Cannellini beans||1 cup||4.1|
|Bok choy||1 bunch||3.2|
|Quinoa||1 cup cooked||2.8|
|Brown rice||1 cup cooked||2.2|
|Rye bread||1 slice||1.0|
|Raw spinach||1 cup||1.6|
|Marmite spread||1 teaspoon||3.2|
All data from NUTTAB 2010 .
Factors influencing iron absorption
There are a variety of factors than may inhibit the absorption of non-haem iron, including:
Example of a high iron meal plan
|Breakfast||2 Rye toast with 2tsp marmite||8.5|
|Snack||1 Handful of almonds||1.9|
|Lunch||2 Quinoa, kidney bean & broccoli burrito with guacamole||6.8|
|Dinner||Chickpea, tomato & spinach curry with brown rice||7.1|
|Breakfast||Banana oatmeal with pumpkin seeds and dates||5.9|
|Snack||1 Cup of milo made with water or soy milk||6.0|
|Lunch||Tempeh & avocado sandwich||9.4|
|Dinner||Black bean chili with veggies & tofu||7.0|
Additional information can be found at:
- Better health channel. (2014). Iron. Retrieved from http://betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Iron_explained
- National Institutes of Health. (2014). Supplement fact sheets. Iron. Retrieved from http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
- NHMRC. (2013). Nutrient Reference Values.Iron. Retrieved from http://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/iron
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. (2014). Iron-Deficiency Anemia. Retrieved from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/ida/signs.html
- Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. (2010). NUTTAB. Searchable database. Retrieved from http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/science/monitoringnutrients/nutrientables/nuttab/Pages/default.aspx