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Pumping Up… with Plant-Based Iron

plant based iron
Dr. Lindsey Mcilvena, MD

In her day job, treating patients living with chronic disease, nutrition and lifestyle are not after-thoughts, they’re central to helping her patients get well. She’s also our go-to expert on plant-based diets.

Let’s talk iron—not pumping iron or getting your clothes wrinkle free—the other, other iron, that keeps your red blood cells strong and your muscles functioning properly. Let’s specifically talk plant-based iron, and where to get it.

Iron is so important, deficiencies lead to anemia, and symptoms such as weakness, brittle nails, fatigue, headaches, and a fast heartbeat. Ever heard of pica? This symptom of iron deficiency is the strangest of them all—people with pica start to crave non-food things to eat. In mild cases people may just crave ice, but in extreme forms people may eat dirt, chalk, or sand. I once had a patient with severe pica who was tearing through boxes of corn starch, eating it by the spoonful.

Clearly low iron isn’t good, but too much iron is bad too. It can build up over the years and lead to problems in the heart and liver.

We need to find the sweet spot for daily intake, which depends on your sex and age (see table).

Here are my top five plant food recs for getting enough iron. As you can see, it’s not too difficult.

  1. Lentils:
    If I could only choose one food to live on for the rest of my life, these little guys would top my list. Not only are they rich in antioxidants, protein, and fiber, but they pack an impressive iron punch as well. One cup of cooked lentils has about 6.5mg, which is a hefty portion of your recommended daily dose.
  2. Greens:
    Kale, collards, cabbage, brussels sprouts, spinach, bok choy. They all contain iron in varying degrees—anywhere from 1mg to over 3mg depending on how much you eat.
  3. Beans:
    Pinto, black, chickpeas, soybeans, lima, the sky is the limit. These vary quite a bit as well, but contain a substantial amount of your daily needs.
  4. Dried Fruit:
    Figs, apricots, raisins. A half a cup of dried fruits usually contains about 1.5-3mg of iron, depending on the fruit. Eat these in moderation, and don’t totally rely on them for your total iron intake.
  5. Potatoes:
    A medium potato contains about 2mg of iron, not too shabby. And with all the negative press the poor spud has endured over the last few years, here’s one more reason to eat them up.

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