Plant-Based Diets and Iron

As a young woman my pulse was alarmingly high. I was a swimmer, got plenty of exercise and should have had a nice low resting pulse rate. My Doctor at the time was alarmed enough by my pulse rate to order a blood test that measured my hemoglobin.

The results showed that my hemoglobin was very, very low. The doctor concluded that I wasn’t getting enough iron in my diet.  He explained that the lack of iron meant that my body could not make enough of the protein, hemoglobin. And since hemoglobin carries oxygen to the cells my body was chronically short on cellular oxygen. He mentioned the word “anemic” and suggested that since I was a vegetarian it was unlikely I could get enough iron in my food. He got out his pad and prescribed iron pills.

He described the problems that came from chronic anemia – fatigue, brain fog, leg cramps, shortness of breath and on and on.  He scared me into taking the iron.

The iron pills made me miserable – I will spare you details. Just leave it that it took about a week for me to toss the iron pills in the trash and to start looking for iron-rich foods. This is my first memory of using nutrition as a “medicine” and the start of a life long practice of looking at food instead of medicine.

I started out pretty smug. I figured that this would be easy since grains and legumes have high iron content. And so does cheese. I was getting set to go on a bread and cheese binge. But decided to find out a little more.  Good thing!.

Turns out that milk and cheese actually block iron absorption. Worse, grains and legumes contain high doses of phytates.  And phytates bind to iron and hinder iron absorption in the lower intestine. I finally came up with two ways to counteract the phytates: Fermentation and Vitamin C.

I amended the bread and cheese plan and created a new one which included:

  • Minimizing/quitting dairy foods
  • Eating foods with lot of Vitamin C: broccoli, bell peppers, strawberries and citrus fruit. In fact a mere 50mg of vitamin C can counteract the effect of most phytates in a meal. And 50 mg is like a 1/2 cup of broccoli or one orange
  • Eating only whole grain breads. The leavening process (fermentation) breaks the phytate bonds allowing your body to absorb the iron in the grains.
  • Vitamin B12 to help create more red blood cells
  • Folic Acid (B9) to help create more red blood cells

All of that before looking for iron rich foods!

Here is a list of the common foods that have the highest iron content:

  • spinach
  • kale
  • Swiss chard
  • pumpkin and pumpkin seeds
  • sea vegetables (seaweed)
  • papaya
  • kiwi
  • blackstrap molasses
  • dark chocolate

My favorite or course was the dark chocolate. But I was good with most of the rest of them. I started eating more of these foods and within a few months my pulse was back down to a respectable level. My next blood test showed my  hemoglobin was on the high side of normal.

A powerful personal lesson in the effectiveness of nutrition and health.

About Genene Cote

Genene Coté -- Nutrition Advocate, Counselor and Coach who is also a Whole Food Plant Based Eater (vegetarian/vegan), cook and gardener.
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