I’m tired. Is my iron low?
There are many reasons why you might feel tired, but no matter what the reason is, ensuring you’re receiving all the nutrients you need through your diet is a great first step towards feeling better.
A common reason for low energy levels is that your red blood cells are unable to deliver energizing oxygen to your cells and tissues. If your cells don’t have enough oxygen they can’t make enough energy. Iron is an important mineral for this process because it helps build the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your red blood cell and delivers it all through your body.
Low iron levels can also leave your mind feeling foggy, and your hair, nails, and skin dry and lack-luster. According to the World Health Organization, iron-deficient anemia is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. In the USA one in 10 Americans and as many as one in five American women are affected by this condition.
Some people believe that if you eat a plant-based diet you will not get enough iron and you’ll be tired and cold all the time. This doesn’t have to be the case. Some of the world’s strongest and most successful athletes are vegans.
Consider Kendrick Farris, Olympic weightlifter. He says of his plant-based diet in Men's Fitness:
“Now, my body recovers a lot faster. I feel lighter. My mind is a lot more clear.”
Or Morgan Mitchell, Olympic sprinter. She told LIVEKINDLY: “I recover a lot quicker than I used to. It’s easier to keep my weight down and I haven’t been sick at all!”
With a little nutritional knowledge, you can easily make food choices to boost your energy levels!
Most people associate iron with red meat. It is true that animal sources of iron (called heme iron) are relatively easy to absorb, and it’s also true that it’s easy to meet your iron, and most other nutrient needs in a vegan diet.
It’s important to remember that being vegan does not mean being healthy. One must still make smart plant-based food choices to experience optimal health. When your nutrient needs are being met it’s easy to maintain a vegan diet for your entire life. When they’re not being met your body will not be able to function optimally and eventually will malfunction, as in dis-ease. In general, when you eat across a wide variety of whole, plant based foods and minimize processed foods and concentrated sweets, you will meet most of your nutritional needs.
There are a few nutrients that require some nutritional awareness to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of them. Iron is one. Luckily, it’s quite easy to get enough plant-based iron when you know where to look and you know the secret to extract more iron from those foods.
I grew up on a wee farm eating meat at dinner every night. Despite this daily dose of meat, I was borderline anemic for all my teen years. As an adult I started eating less meat and more vegetables, exploring the wide world of myriad cuisines. Now, after years of only eating plant-based foods, my iron levels are at the high end of normal. How did this happen? My smart plant-based diet is higher in iron and other nutrients that support healthy blood and digestion than my omnivorous diet was.
Don’t let anyone tell you differently, plants contain heaps of iron. It’s in a form called non-heme iron and it’s not as efficiently absorbed by our bodies as heme iron (animal sourced), but because iron is so abundant in plants, that’s not a concern if you eat smart.
Remember, the body needs iron to produce hemoglobin, which is the part of the red blood cell that carries energizing oxygen to all our cells.
I am a licensed Asian Medicine Practitioner (AMP) with a master’s degree in Acupuncture. I’ve been in clinical practice for 26 years. Asian medicine is a medical system that has existed for more than 3,000 years and throughout Asia, and in some clinics around the world, AMPs work in hospitals in tandem with allopathic (western medicine) physicians for the best outcomes for their patients.
Asian medicine sees the symptoms of iron deficiency as part of a broader pattern called Blood deficiency. An AMP uses diet, lifestyle counseling, herbal medicine, and acupuncture to help a client build Blood, which is the name given to an aspect of your body that carries nutrients, energy, oxygen, and moisture to your cells. It nourishes the mind for clear thinking and also keeps your skin, hair, nails, muscles, and tendons in working order. Blood, as defined in Asian medicine is capitalized, unlike the blood that flows through our veins.
To treat Blood deficiency as a pattern of dis-ease, Asian medicine recommendations not only include increasing iron intake but increasing other blood building nutrients such as folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin C, as well as promoting strong digestion. To address iron deficiency more efficiently, utilizing recommendations from both systems is advised.
These symptoms are not exclusive to iron deficiency. There can be other causes. Talk with your health care provider or contact us if you need further support.
We have good news for you! Iron is found in high levels in a wide variety of nutrient-dense plants. In this section, we’ll explore some of the top sources with links to some of our favorite recipes that use these Blood building foods.
In alignment with the Asian concept of Blood deficiency, nutrition science now realizes that you cannot simply take iron and expect their iron deficit to correct itself but must address the overall health of red blood cells. The body also needs folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin B12. They work together to efficiently absorb and use iron as well as work within your bone marrow to grow healthy red blood cells. Without adequate folate, B12, and iron, you cannot make healthy red blood cells. If the red blood cells aren’t healthy, you will not be able to deliver enough oxygen to keep your cells functioning optimally.
How much iron do you need?
Iron needs vary. Amounts we post are based on USDA, WHO, and/or European recommendations. If you’re a woman of child-bearing age or pregnant, you’re more likely to need more iron in your diet and more digestive support.
Here are recommended daily iron intake suggestions:
How much folate do you need?
Most healthy adults need at least 400mcg of folate per day to prevent deficiency.
How much vitamin B12 do you need?
Amounts are based on USDA, WHO, and/or European recommendations.
Long-term vitamin B12 deficiency can cause permanent neurological damage as well as small red blood cell size. Vitamin B12 is uncommon in plants. You can most easily find it in nutritional yeast and nori seaweed. Fortified milk alternatives and cereals also offer vitamin B12. It is often advised for people who eat an exclusively plant-based diet to consider a B12 supplement.
Lemon juice helps you absorb iron! The combination of citric and ascorbic acids (abundant in lemon juice) significantly increases iron absorption. In studies, lemon juice is more effective than orange juice, and other fruits that also contain high levels of vitamin C.
As you’ve learned, having a strong digestive system is key to absorbing and utilizing the vitamins you ingest. In Asian medicine, we consider digestion your cornerstone of health. Without a healthy digestive system, all other aspects of one’s health will suffer.
Improving your digestion is a big topic for another article, but for now here are some tips you can follow:
Here are a few recipes we absolutely love that are super at building Blood and supporting healthy iron levels. When you scroll to the bottom of the recipe you’ll find an in-depth nutritional analysis where you can see how much iron, folate, and B12 you will get in a serving.
We hope you’ve learned that a whole-foods plant-based diet can provide you will all the iron and support for healthy Blood that you need. When you eat smart, you can meet your nutritional needs, feel fabulous, and continue to live by your vegan values.
Go vegan. Stay vegan.
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Stacy and Markus live a thriving vegan lifestyle with their two young boys. They write articles and offer courses to inspire you about plant-based cooking, teach you how to stay healthy and stay vegan, and moderate a private online Thriving Vegan Family Community where you can interact directly with them, other families, and plant-based enthusiasts about a vegan lifestyle, nutrition, and raising vegan kids.
They earned degrees in molecular biology and acupuncture, consulted over decades for healthcare companies and individuals, created businesses in Asian medicine, eco-tourism, cultural immersion, and taught yoga in myriad venues. They also offer individual health and wellness coaching to individuals who are motivated to improve the quality of their lives.
We’ve learned a lot from eating a plant-based diet for 25 years and are eager to help you have fun going vegan and staying vegan. Learn more on our About Us page.
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