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Getting Enough Iron on a Plant Based Diet

Iron is everywhere on earth - its the 4th most abundant element in the earth's crust. Unfortunately, it's estimated that iron deficiency affects ~1.5-2 billion people. Now there are many complex reasons contributing to such a high rate of iron deficiency and anaemia, including poverty and food insecurity. But today I'm going to cover the ins and outs of ensuring adequate iron intake for those of you who follow a plant based diet.

Each day your body loses some iron through the GI tract, the skin, the airways and in sweat, equating to ~ 1 mg of absorbed iron per day. Women of childbearing age also need to compensate for additional losses each month, now this varies greatly from person to person, but it has been estimated to account for an additional 0.5 mg of iron per day. Infants, children, teens and women who are pregnant are at an increased risk of developing iron deficiency as they experience phases of rapid tissue growth.

Two main forms of iron are found in foods; haem iron and non-haem iron. Plant foods contain only non-haem iron, whereas animal products can contain both forms. Put simply Haem iron is more bioavailable to humans. Now, by no means do we need haem iron to be healthy, in fact intake of haem iron and high iron stores have been linked with several diseases - but thats a topic for another time. Rest assured though you can do just fine if you only consume foods that contain non-haem iron.

In Australia the recommended dietary intake of iron is 8 mg/day for the average adult male and 18 mg/day for adult females who have not yet gone through menopause. However, it is really important to note that you aren't necessarily what you eat - you are what you absorb.

It is estimated that in a typical western diet 14-17% of the iron consumed is bioavailable to use (meaning able to be absorbed), whereas it is likely that those following a vegetarian or vegan diet will only absorb 5-12% of the iron they consume. It is therefore recommended that those following a plant based diet consume higher amounts of iron to compensat