I pride myself on living healthily. Yes, I love, love, love wine and ice cream, but I generally eat well and exercise regularly. When I cut meat and dairy from my diet, I became more conscientious about nutrition, making sure I was replacing the vitamins and nutrients I gained from animal products in the past.
Which is why I was so annoyed when about a month back my boyfriend started mentioning that I looked tired. Sure I had been feeling sluggish, but I attributed it to increasing my exercise levels in prep for an upcoming race, while still cranking long hours at work. More to humor him than to see if anything was actually wrong, I went to see my doctor, who after a few quick tests informed me I had an iron deficiency.
I will admit that it was a minor hit to my ego. A few people I told immediately pointed the finger at my plant based diet. Clearly a lack of steak was to blame. However, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, despite popular opinions, vegetarians don’t suffer from iron deficiency at a greater rate than omnivores. In fact, anemia is perhaps one of the most common nutrient deficiencies.
Women of reproductive age top the high risk list, with endurance athletes next. In part athletes are more likely to notice the affects of anemia – someone who isn’t active may not notice the impact iron deficiency takes on the body. But in addition, long workouts can diminish your iron levels – every drop of sweat marks lost iron. The physical impact of running additionally takes its toll on iron stores – when your feet strike the pavement, red blood cells burst, and the iron inside these cells is lost.
This isn’t reason to not be active, but it does mean that if you have an iron deficiency already, the depleting effects of exercise can compound the problem.
The good news is that there is a wealth of plant-based foods rich in iron, and because iron is best absorbed with vitamin C, it’s pretty easy to do when combining with fruits and veggies.
Here are the ones making common appearances in my diet.
- Pumpkin Seeds: To get the most bang for your seed, choose raw which packs twice as much iron as roasted options – 1 handful is 30 percent of your daily iron intake. I’ve been sprinkling these on my oatmeal.
- Whole Grains: Quinoa and amaranth are both great sources of iron. I’ve made a few batches of energy bars with popped amaranth and blue berries (for vitamin C) which are the perfect snack for long workouts.
- Dark Leafy Greens: Turns out Popeye was onto something. Beet greens, kale, and chard are great sources. Kale and spinach are now making frequent appearances in my morning smoothies.
- Dried Fruit: Dried apricots, prunes and raisins are all great sources of iron... though I will admit, I can’t get nearly as excited about prunes as I have about apricots.
- Cocoa: Never did I expect to see this on a doctor’s list, but I am happy I did. One cup packs 10mg of iron (almost a third of your daily intake) – sure, I don’t have 1 cup of cocoa in a sitting, but knowing a tablespoon here and there is doing me some good, makes me pretty happy.