Last week I discussed high-calorie foods for vegan athletes to show you that it is possible, even easy, to consume enough calories from high-quality plant foods to fuel your workouts. This week I would like to talk about plant-based sources of iron, since the meat industry particularly likes to scare us ladies into thinking that we won’t get enough iron to compensate for the monthly shedding if steak is not a staple in our diets.
The fact is, iron – like other nutrients – can only be absorbed in limited amounts at one time, so eating one 8 oz ribeye or even taking a 15 mg supplement won’t do you as much good as eating a cup of chickpeas (1.4 g, 8% of your recommended daily intake) as a salad topper at lunch followed by another cup of beans (3 g, 20% of your RDI), in black beans and rice with bell pepper and onion, for dinner along with nuts and other iron-rich snacks throughout the day.
While it is true that meats like chicken and beef do contain more iron per serving than many plant foods, it’s important to note three things:
Your RDI for iron probably isn’t as high as you think.
The recommended range for women aged 19-50 is 18 to 45 (upper limit) mg per day. The recommended daily minimum plunges to 8 mg/day for women over the age of 50, presumably because Aunt Flow will soon be dead and gone if she isn’t already. Likewise, breastfeeding women can get by with just 10 mg/day, and the range for all men aged 19 and over is 8 to 45 mg/day.
The acceptable blood iron range is probably lower than you think.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the healthy range for female adults is 12.0 to 15.5 grams per dL of blood. For men, the range is 13.5 to 17.5 g/dL. If you’re not sure if your blood iron is within normal limits, make an appointment to have a blood panel done at your doctor’s office or through an employer-sponsored health screening event.
More isn’t always better.
Ever heard of a condition called hemochromatosis? If you have it, it means that your body stores excessive, off-the-charts amounts of iron. Heredity is believed to be a factor, and in the long run, these excessive iron stores cause damage to the liver and other vital organs and can be fatal if not properly treated. The Iron Disorders Institute estimates that as many as 16 million Americans have elevated iron and may be at risk of developing symptoms (fatigue, joint pain, etc.) consistent with a classic case of hemochromatosis. So don’t go to the opposite extreme thinking you’re doing yourself a favor; keep your intake low enough at any one time so that it will all be absorbed, and also be mindful of the recommended upper daily limit.
Applying the Knowledge
So with that all said, let’s talk about something fun – like stuffing our faces! Thankfully, there are nearly as many sources of iron in the plant world as protein. They don’t get the recognition of lean meats, but they’re out there, and ensuring adequate intake is as easy as knowing where to look for the iron and how to unlock even more of it by combining iron-rich plant foods with vitamin C!
To demonstrate how a meal plan might actually come together, I am providing a one-day sample below. All of the following are high in iron and also contain vitamin C to help you absorb more of it. Quantities consumed are up to you, because only you know how hungry you are or how many miles you run each week!
Kidney beans topped with steamed spinach (make it extra tasty with salt, pepper and a dash or two or nutmeg) and tofu scramble (BONUS: the nutritional yeast in the tofu scramble recipe helps give it an eggy flavor and is also a plant-based source of vitamin B-12!)
Fresh-squeezed orange juice
Hippie bowl (yep, it’s a thing; check it out here if you’re on Pinterest): black beans, quinoa and kale sautéed in olive oil and garlic, topped with a lemon-tahini dressing
My Four-Bean, Five Alarm Chili with made-from-scratch cornbread!
The possibilities here are infinitely many, since there are so many plant foods rich in iron that are fun to eat and easy to prepare.
Do you have any concerns about keeping your iron levels high enough as a vegan runner to train well? Would you like any further advice on how to ensure that you are getting enough iron as well as other key nutrients?
Let me know in the comments!