What is iron and why do we need it?
Iron is an essential mineral that is needed to help transport oxygen around the body. We also need iron to help maintain healthy cells, hair, nails, and skin.
In an interview with R.E.A.L, Neal Barnard M.D. refers to Iron as a double-edged sword "If you don’t have enough, you’ll be anemic. If you have too much, you’re iron overloaded. In the brain, the iron appears to oxidize. It rusts, in essence. That causes the creation of free radicals that can damage the brain."
How much do we need?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) in America and Australia vary slightly to that in the UK but are fairly similar.
Age Male Female
18-50 years 8.7mg 14.8mg
50+ 8.7mg 8.7mg
Can we get enough iron from plant-based foods?
In short, yes.
There is plenty of non-heme iron in many plant-based foods, such as:
The benefits of non-heme iron
Neal Barnard M.D. actually suggests that non-heme is more beneficial for the body because it's "a special form that is more absorbable if you need it but less absorbable if you already have a lot of iron on board already. That’s your body’s homeostatic mechanism for maintaining iron balance. The iron that’s in meat is to a large degree heme iron and that defies your body’s ability to control it."
So having non-heme sources of iron is a great way to reduce the risk of overloading on iron, which can create free radicals that damage the brain.
Absorption of non-heme iron can be increased with eating foods rich in vitamin C. Michael Greger M.D. talks about Mineral Absorption Enhancers.
Potential risks of heme iron
Although it's well known that heme iron (from animal products) is absorbed better, what is generally not known or thought about is whether that is actually beneficial for us or not. Michael Greger M.D discusses The Safety of Heme vs. Non-heme Iron. Heme iron absorbs better but may increase the risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Another reason to keep animals off our plates.
Should you supplement?
Neal Barnard M.D. recommends " If you do need extra iron, turn first to greens and beans. Vitamin C rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, increase the absorption of iron from the other foods you eat, and avoiding dairy products helps, too. They are very low in iron and actually reduce its absorption from your digestive tract."
And if you are anemic, Neal Barnard M.D. suggests that you "work with your doctor to find out what kind of anemia you have and why it occurred. Anemia can be a sign of kidney disease, it can be caused by certain drugs, and it can be a sign of blood loss from your digestive tract caused by gastro-intestinal irritation or even colon cancer. It is essential that you be evaluated and treated appropriately."
Before deciding whether or not to take a supplement check out the video Risk Associated with Iron Supplements.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell often talks about nutrition as a symphony, because it's the combination of foods in a whole food plant based diet that creates optimal health and not the isolated focus on one vitamin or mineral alone.