HOW TO NOT WORRY ABOUT IRON
Updated: Oct 11
The myth: you need to eat meat in order to get enough iron.
There is an explanation for the myth. Dairy is about the worst food you can eat if you are concerned about your iron levels. Not only does dairy contain almost zero iron, but the calcium in milk interferes
with the body’s ability to absorb iron. Therefore, high dairy consumption contributes to anemia. Even though vegetarians have
been found to have similar hemoglobin levels (iron is measured by testing the level of hemoglobin in the blood, since iron is needed to form hemoglobin) to meat-eaters, there are occasionally some vegetarians who become anemic, and when that happens, the slander
is sure to spread that they became anemic because they gave up meat, rather than because they ate so much cheese. Nobody really pays much attention to anemic meat-eaters, after all, although they are far more prevalent than anemic vegetarians or vegans.
Many people who give up meat may initially become vegetarians, rather than vegans. They may be interested in veganism, but want to “take it one step at a time.” And, especially if they are worried (however needlessly) about protein, they may rely heavily on dairy products as a staple of their new vegetarian diet. They may then become anemic and blame the anemia on the lack of meat in their diet, rather than the overload of dairy in their diet.
Heme iron is the form of iron that you get from eating animals; you are ingesting the iron that the animals ingested from eating plants and then deposited in their blood and tissues. Iron from plants is called non-heme iron. The case that is made for heme iron is that it is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron. That may seem to be an advantage, but in fact it is a disadvantage; there is a good deal of evidence that heme iron may be problematic precisely because it is so easily absorbed.
The animals that people consume seemed to know better than humans what form of iron is best to eat.
A study of nutrient intake and status in adults consuming plant-based diets compared to meat-eaters found that blood hemoglobin levels were similar and adequate for meat-eaters, vegans, and vegetarians 1 . It also found that iron intake was highest in vegans, yet iron stores in the body were highest in meat-eaters. That can be explained by the fact that the human body can regulate non-heme iron and easily rid itself of any excess; it cannot excrete excess iron once it has been absorbed, and heme iron is too easily absorbed.
Heme iron has been associated with metabolic syndrome 2 , increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, and cancer. A meta-analysis of six studies with a combined 131,533 participants found that “participants with higher heme iron intake had a 31% increased risk of CHD (coronary heart disease).” 3 Similarly, a meta-analysis of eight studies found “a significant positive dose-response association of heme iron intake . . . with risk of CRC (colorectal cancer).” 4
There’s always the same conundrum, though. Meat is so bad for you in so many ways that it’s difficult to parse and analyze its constituent evils. It’s hard to know whether the heme iron causes, for example, the heart disease, or whether the association between greater heme iron stores and higher incidence of heart disease can be explained by the fact that meat consumption causes heart disease (due to its content of saturated fat, cholesterol, animal protein, and on and on . . .), and the heme iron merely comes along for the ride. There is a theory, though, that the heme iron contributes to the oxidation of cholesterol, leading to heart attacks.
As long as you are eating plenty of whole plant foods, you shouldn’t have to worry about iron intake. If you are concerned nonetheless, here are some strategies to help you not worry about
1) Eat plenty of leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains, and some nuts and seeds.
2) Soak your beans and lentils--that can increase the bio-availability of their iron content.
3) Have vitamin-C rich foods while eating iron-rich foods. Have a dish with both tomato sauce and beans, for example. Squeeze lemon juice on your hummus.
4) Don’t drink tea or coffee at meals with iron-rich foods, as the tannins in tea and coffee can interfere with iron absorption. Have your tea or coffee at least an hour before or after meals.
5) Monitor your hemoglobin levels with annual bloodwork.