Is non-heme (plant) iron less absorbed than heme (animal) iron?

If it’s not vitamin B12 deficiency, then it’s the lack of iron, right? These two are the most feared and controversial issues regarding an exclusively plant-based diet. I think it’s time to put this debate to rest, once and for all. I can say it out loud to anyone: those whose diets only include food of vegetal origin are not more predisposed to anaemia, caused by lack of iron, than those who eat food of animal origin.

If you’re like me, you won’t take anyone’s word for it. You will look for statistics, reports, analysis or, at least, someone in a white robe to confirm it. Let’s start at the beginning: the reason why iron is so important in the first place.

How iron helps us breathe

Iron is one of the minerals found in large quantities in our blood. It’s important in the formation of haemoglobin, a protein in our red cells responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to our organs and tissues. In other words, without iron, red cells will be fewer and smaller, and cells will not receive enough oxygen. That’s why people with low iron levels have anaemia – their energy drops, the immunity is affected, their skin gets paler as circulation is affected, and some experience dizziness and shortness of breath.

A healthy adult male needs about 10 mg of iron a day, an adult woman needs 18 mg or, when she is pregnant, 27 mg. At birth, the new-born already has reserves for the first four months of life. After that, he must already ingest it, at 11 mg a day before 12 months of age and 7 mg / day from 1 to 3 years of age.

What is the difference between iron from meat vs plants?

Meat contains two types of iron: about 40% is heme iron and 60% is non-heme. Plants only include non-heme iron. A lot of people think that non-heme iron is inferior, because studies have shown it to be less readily-absorbed than heme iron. However, there’s a big catch there! The body of vegans will adapt to their plant based diet and will increase its uptake to suit its needs. A typical vegan diet is rich in non-heme iron and also provides vitamins like A, C and E. There simply isn’t a great incidence of vegans being clinically iron deficient.

This “non-heme iron” is also more… flexible, in a way. Or at least our bodies are more flexible in its treatment. Non-heme iron can be absorbed when we need it, and then absorption can be scaled down, for instance if our iron reserves are already high. Heme iron, however, is indeed absorbed faster. That means it’s much harder for the body to regulate its intake and it can continue to be absorbed even when the body doesn’t need it. This leads to all kinds of trouble: it can cause DNA damage and there are now studies linking excess iron intake to diseases ranging from Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes and several forms of cancer.

Where can you find iron in a plant-based diet and how to maximise absorption

Do you love dark chocolate? Great, ‘cause it’s very useful in this case. Iron can also be found in soy beans, oats, and plants like broccoli, kale and spinach. Dried fruits are always an option, especially if you love raisins, peaches, pears and apricots, alongside oats, nuts and seeds.

To maximise absorption, get plenty of vitamin C from food – from lemons, of course, but also tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, kiwi and various berries, and the delicious pineapple. Results of studies have varied, showing that the intake of less vitamin C than in your usual glass of fresh juice (50 to 75 mg) will also improve iron absorption 400%-600%.

Everything I’ve mentioned above comes from plants, so you shouldn’t worry about lack of iron if you’re thinking about switching to a healthier diet. You’ll only need to give your body plenty of variety and, fortunately, there’s a lot to choose from and it’s delicious.

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