30 Day Vegan Challenge – Day 19 – Absorb Iron

Strong Like Popeye: Increase Your Iron Absorption 

4bc98b7c9d24d2de8293f3ac731abf98-994cfb48456e223324103b0d6d76f2feStudies show little difference in the incidence of iron deficiency between vegans and non-vegetarians in developed countries. In fact, the amount of iron in vegan diets tends to be higher than or at least equal to, that in non-vegetarian diets. Why? Because almost everything that crosses a vegan’s lips contains iron: beans, nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables and fruit.

There are two different types of iron in food: heme iron and nonheme iron, Heme iron is found in animal products; nonheme iron is found in both plants foods and animal products. After being absorbed and reaching our cells for building hemoglobin and other purposes, our body doesn’t care whether the iron was originally heme or nonheme. So, when people assert that our bodies need heme iron from meat. It’s simply not true. The body needs to absorb iron, but it ultimately doesn’t matter where it originated.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, 30 Day Vegan Challenge

A cup of cooked lentils has 30 grams of iron.
A cup of cooked lentils has 30 grams of iron.

It is not even the amount of iron we ingest, but our ability to absorb and use it. The key to the bioavailability of iron is Vitamin C, so eat food rich in Vitamin C at the same time as foods rich in iron. An adult menstruating woman like myself requires 18 milligrams of iron per day. Plenty of plant foods are high in iron.

Iron Deficiency Led Me to Veganism

My doctor rang me the night of my blood test. “Let me put it this way,” she explained, “your haemoglobin is a few points away from you in a coma, I don’t know how you are still standing.”  I didn’t really know either. I was beyond exhausted and barely functioning. It was all I could do to get through a day at work. For more than six weeks straight I had been bleeding heavily and constantly. People were worriedly inquiring about my health.  Apparently, I looked grey.  In the past week, I had started to  feel disassociated from my body; like I was moving through a thick fog. Sometimes I could feel the pulse in my neck racing so fast, I started worrying I might be due for a heart attack.  Yet, it took my boss kicking me out the door one afternoon and ordering me to the doctor’s office to finally take action.

The immediate problem was to stop the bleeding, which took a mega-dose of hormones, and to increase my iron levels. I got a large prescription for iron and ascorbic acid.  It took several does of hormones to regulate my bleeding and even longer to start feeling truly normal again.

My doctor was not impressed with my vegetarian diet, which she held responsible for my iron reserves being so low and it wouldn’t help my recovery. She looked at me sternly, “You really want to think about putting red meat back in your diet.” Then she told me a whole lot of stuff I didn’t understand about iron and why I should be eating at least some red meat.

Avoid drinking tea with meals if you want to increase iron absorption.  The tannin in tea can decrease absorption by up to 60%.
Avoid drinking tea with meals if you want to increase iron absorption. The tannin in tea can decrease absorption by up to 60%.

I was inclined to believe her. Three days earlier I had woken up suddenly in the night with an overwhelming, insane craving for meat, something I had never felt before in my life. My wife was away, so there was noone to talk me down off the ledge, and as though possessed by some other entity I found myself desperately ransacking the freezer. All I could find was one old freezer burned chop, which I threw into the microwave and blasted before desperately devouring it almost raw. Within half an hour I was throwing up. I felt insane and frightened, but still wasn’t thinking clearly enough to get myself to a doctor.

So, when I was told to eat meat again, it made sense. My body had been screaming at me that it needed iron, and obviously the iron it needed was in meat. I started to eat small amounts of red meat again, but I felt uneasy. This came to a head one day at work when I told a client I was working with I was eating meat again. She held up her hand to high five me. Automatically, I raised my hand in response, but half way to contact I suddenly stopped.

“But I’m not happy about it.”

In that moment, I realised how uncomfortable I was eating meat again, and I didn’t even know why. I mean meat tastes fine if you cook it right, and I still subscribed to the whole ‘free-range’ mindset, but underneath it all I wasn’t happy about the situation.

Don't self-diagnose. Get a blood test to confirm your iron levels. If absorption or iron levels are an issue you may need to adjust your diet and/or take supplements.
Don’t self-diagnose. Get a blood test to confirm your iron levels. If absorption or iron levels are an issue you may need to adjust your diet and/or take supplements.

I went on the internet and started to do some research. At first, the information I found seemed to support my doctor. But surely, I couldn’t be the only vegetarian to ever face this problem? I started digging deeper. This is how I found veganism. Even though I have known three vegans in my life I’d never thought to asked about what it meant. It had never occurred to me that it was something relevant to me. Once, I started to catch glimpses of where my food was really coming from and what it meant I couldn’t leave it alone, which eventually led to where I am today.

Imagine my poor doctor when I told her that not only was I not going back on a vegetarian diet, I was now planning to go vegan. 🙂

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