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What every vegan needs to know about iron

True or False: The iron that our bodies require is the same element found in a cast-iron skillet.

 

 

This question fools a surprising number of people. Iron is greatly misunderstood as a nutrient, especially when it comes to vegan and plant based diets.

The mineral is found all over the earth and is essential to red blood cells transporting oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our body, connecting us directly to the land we live on. Pretty amazing, right?

But iron deficiency is a very common nutrient deficiency. Symptoms include fatigue, pale skin, weakness and inability to maintain body temperature. And as vegans, it’s worth paying special attention to make sure we’re getting enough.

So how much iron do we actually need?

Recently in the U.S., the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) gave new recommendations for iron, specifically for vegetarians, that are 1.8 times higher than the general population. As Jack Norris points out, this increase is not based on actual research on vegetarians, but simply because the iron in plant foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron in animal products (more on this in just a minute).

As a result, many experts in vegetarian nutrition believe that these recommendations are much higher than needed.

My take on it: if you eat a varied, healthy plant-based diet that includes a balance of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables — and follow the recommendations below — I don’t believe it is necessary to keep close track of iron intake. As I always say however; I am not a nutritionist so please consult your doctor if you have concerns about your iron levels.

Iron from plants vs. iron from animals

To better understand what we need to do to ensure our bodies are getting enough iron, we first have to accept two facts about iron — painful as they are for vegetarians and vegans to hear:

  1. There are two types of iron — heme, which is found in animal foods, and non-heme, which is from plants. It is true that heme iron (the kind from animals) is better absorbed than non-heme iron.
  2. Vegetarians and vegans may have lower iron stores than omnivores.

But don’t fret over these issues. We’ll see that in fact it’s not all that difficult to get the iron you need on a plant-based diet.

As for #2, it’s important to note that while vegetarians have lower stores of iron than omnivores, they do not have higher rates of anemia. In the research, many vegetarians’ stores are “low-normal,” but this does not mean less than ideal! Actually, there’s some evidence that says low-normal iron stores are beneficial: improved insulin function and lower rates of heart disease and cancer.

How to get enough iron on a plant-based diet

You can start by making sure that you’re eating foods that contain substantial amounts of iron. Some of the best plant sources of iron include:

  • Legumes: lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans
  • Grains: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal
  • Nuts and seeds: pumpkin, squash, pine, pistacio, sunflower, cashews, unhulled sesame
  • Vegetables: tomato sauce, swiss chard, collard greens,
  • Other: blackstrap molasses, prune juice

But here’s the key: It’s not how much iron you consume, but how well you absorb it.

So paying attention to make sure you’re absorbing your iron is just as important as making sure you’re taking in enough. And fortunately there is a lot you can do to increase the absorption of non-heme iron!

5 ways vegetarians and vegans can absorb more iron

1. The less you eat, the better it is absorbed.

Seriously! I know people who take one 15 milligram pill a day and think they are covered, but it doesn’t work that way. When consuming higher amounts of iron at one time, the percentage that our bodies absorb is actually lower than when your meal contains only a few milligrams. Plant-based foods may contain less iron than animal foods, but eating smaller amounts throughout the day is a great way to increase absorption.

2. Eat non-heme iron foods with vitamin C foods, and absorption can increase as much as five times.

Five times! Culturally these combinations are already happening: think beans and rice with salsa, falafel with tomatoes and hummus with lemon juice. The iron in beans, grains and seeds is better absorbed when combined with the vitamin-C found in fruits and vegetables. Bonus: some iron sources, like leafy greens, broccoli, and tomato sauce already contain vitamin-C.

3. Avoid coffee and tea when eating high-iron meals.

Coffee (even decaf!) and tea contain tannins that inhibit iron absorption. I recommend avoiding them an hour before or two hours after your meal.

4. Cast-iron skillets increase iron absorption.

The answer to the true or false question is true! Cooking with an old school cast-iron skillet increases the iron in your meal — especially when you cook a vitamin-C containing food in it.

Even better, a cast-iron skillet purchase puts you in the realm of official serious cook. I bought mine almost 10 years ago for $8 and it is one of my most valued possessions. (Yes, I’m that much of a food nerd that a skillet is one of my most valued possessions!)

5. It pains me to say this, but you may want to avoid spinach as an iron source.

Spinach contains oxalates that block absorption. Sucks, right? There is some disagreement in the research about this, but with all of those other iron-containing plant foods, why not try some new ones?

And for the record, even if you take an iron supplement, you should still follow the advice above.

Iron doesn’t have to be a problem in a plant-based diet

Follow these principles, eating good sources of iron throughout the day and keeping up with the absorption principles above, and you’ll find that it’s not hard to get enough iron in your diet, even as a vegetarian or vegan.

All of that said, iron is one of the few nutrients where a deficiency both immediately affects your health and is detectable, so if you have any iron-deficiency symptoms I recommend getting blood tests with your doctor. It is affordable, reliable and easy to interpret. And iron levels bounce back quickly when using the methods above or supplementation.

I’ll leave you with a fun fact about iron in plant-based diets (well, fun to a food nerd at least):

Some research shows that vegans have higher iron levels than vegetarians.

How?

The difference between vegetarians and vegans is eggs and dairy products, and the latter contain almost no iron. When someone goes from vegetarian to vegan they are replacing dairy products with plant-based ones, all of which contain some iron, therefore increasing the total iron in the diet.

With this information and a little effort you can get all of the iron you need from plants to be healthy and strong!

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Smoothie Bowls

I only started making smoothie bowls a few months ago. I would see so many elaborate and stunningly beautiful pictures of them on Instagram and think ‘I don’t have time for that’.  I was so in awe of those amazing photos, I thought I’d give them a go. I spend around 10 minutes making them, with 2 toddlers and a tween telling me they’re hungry. If I can do it, you can too!

We love smoothies, but they can be a bit boring. My children love bright colours and food which looks different and fun. You can dress up a smoothie bowl with anything you have in your fridge and pantry. I use a mixture of grains, nuts, seeds and fruit. My kids love a smiley face on top of the brightly coloured base mixture. The trick to the floating face, is to make sure the smoothie is thick. You won’t be drinking it through a straw and you don’t want the toppings to sink! I like to use frozen bananas to make ‘nice cream’, which is nice and thick.

A smoothie bowl is typically topped with nuts, seeds and fruit which provide essential nutrients, vitamins and protein. Some people only use fruit and/or protein powder in the smoothie itself. That doesn’t keep my kids full for long at all. My favourite tummy filling, protein loaded things to add are:

* soaked oats

* cooked quinoa

* cooked buckwheat

* cooked kumera (sweet potato)

* Cannellini Beans

Mix it up a bit and try something different each time. I don’t use plant milk in smoothies, I only use water. This is only because almond milk is expensive. Water works just as well and if I want a creamier consistency, I use avocado.

If you or you children haven’t tired spirulina powder before, just try a little bit first and look out for a tummy upset. It isn’t recommended for children under 1 yr, so please consult a professional before giving it to your baby.

I hope you have as much fun creating these bowls as I do.

This recipe make 4 smoothie bowls. I make individual smoothies in my nutri bullet.

Ingredients:

2 cups rolled oats, soaked overnight in 1 cup almond milk

4 tsp spirulina powder

4 heaped tsp ground flaxseed

4 bananas

4 tsp chia seeds

4 tsp sunflower seeds

4 tsp blueberry & apple jam

8 tsp peanut butter

1/4 cup water

Pure maple syrup, optional (I add a tsp to each smoothie to dull the taste of the spirulina powder)

Method:

In the blender add: 1/2 cup of the soaked oats, half a banana, 1 tsp of spirulina powder, 1 heaped tsp of flaxseed, 1/4 cup water

Blend until smooth

Pour into a bowl and top with your favourite toppings and enjoy!

 

 

 

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Sunday Funday

I love sundays. We always have a family outing in the mornings; today was spent at the beach. While the toddlers slept this afternoon, I got to cooking. It was a mega cook up for next week’s lunches.

I made:

1. crispy baked chick peas. They marinated for 2 days in braggs liquid seasoning, pure maple syrup and liquid smoke. They are so delicious, I had to force myself not to eat them all.

2. Brocolli and spinach tots. I used chickpea flour instead of breadcrumbs and they turned out absolutely delicious!

3. Blueberry and apple chia jam. I added the chia seeds after I had blended the fruit. It sets in the fridge and is good to eat after 30 minutes. It’s the easiest jam I’ve ever made!

4. Spelt flour and raisin scones. With only 4 ingredients, these scones only took 5 minutes to make and cook in 10! They’re lovely with the jam.

5. Date and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. I use buckwheat flour for these cookies, as it creates an amazing texture alongside the peanut butter. I use just enough flour to hold everything together. They melt in your mouth.

6. Date, almond and oat cookies with vanilla are a favourite.

7. Potato curry balls coated in buckwheat flour and breadcrumbs.

8. Dinner was the potato curry mix as patties with rice and veggies.

I’ll only need to add veggies and fruit to the lunchboxes now which will make life much easier.

If you’d like any of these recipes, look out for my next lunchbox workshop!

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Warm Quinoa Salad

I’ve been making this salad for a few years now and it never fails to please. Its filling, nourishing, colorful and delicious!

You can have it as a side or a main and your friends will be mighty impressed when you turn up for the pot luck with this.

Using seasonal veggies, you can mix it up every time. You can also change the dressing depending on the veggies you use.

This recipe is based on the veggies I last used, so feel free to use what you like and what’s in season wherever you are

This recipe makes 5 portions for a main meal. It will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for a few days.

Its great the next day for lunch with a salad or in a wrap.

GF, Vegan, Plant Based, Oil free, dairy free

Ingredients:

For the salad

2 cups quinoa, washed and drained

1 large orange kumera (sweet potato), peeled and chopped into bite sized pieces

7 medium roasting potatoes skin on, chopped into bite sized pieces

2 tsp braggs liquid seasoning or soy sauce, separated

2 zucchini, chopped

2 handfuls of green beans, chopped in half

1 white onion, chopped

2 cups mushrooms, chopped (I used portobello)

2 carrots, sliced into batons

1 tin black beans, rinsed and drained

For the dressing:

1 avocado

1 tsp dijon mustard

2 cloves garlic

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tbsp pure maple syrup

1/4 cup nutritional yeast

1/3 cup water

Method:

Preheat your oven to 200°

Line 2 baking trays with a silicone mat or baking paper

After washing the quinoa and removing any stones (they’ll be a different color), place it into a large saucepan with 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook for 15-20 minutes until all the water has been absorbed.

Meanwhile, in a bowl spray the potatoes and carrots with a teaspoon of braggs liquid seasoning or soy sauce. Place onto one of the baking trays and cook for 20-25 minutes until brown and crispy

Put the kumera onto the other baking tray, place into the oven 10 minutes after the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes until brown

While the quinoa, potatoes, carrots and kumera are cooking, chop the onion and mushrooms. Heat 2 tbsp of water or veggie broth in a frying pan and cook the onions and mushrooms on low, add the green beans. You may need to add a tablespoon of water or stock every so often to ensure it doesn’t stick.

Chop or grate the raw zucchini into a large mixing bowl

Once the mushrooms and onions are cooked, remove from the heat

When your potatoes, carrots and kumera are cooked remove from the oven and leave to cool on the trays

Add all the dressing ingredients to a nutribullet or blender. Pulse until smooth and creamy

Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking. If you like it thinner, add a little water

Add all of the salad ingredients into the bowl with the zucchinni

Pour over the dressing and gently mix until it’s evenly coating the quinoa and veggies

Serve immediately

Notes:

* Technically quinoa is gluten free based on the definition of gluten created for those with celiac disease. However; quinoa does have “gluten like” storage proteins that can mimic proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye (Gluten Free Society)

* Quinoa can be subbed for wild rice for a different texture

* Millet is a cheaper alternative to quinoa, although it doesn’t contain as much protein

* The black beans can be subbed for any other beans you have

* Pure maple syrup can be subbed for any sweetener you prefer. If you don’t use a liquid, you’ll need to add a little more water to the dressing

I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as we do. Let me know how you liked it, here or on Facebook

Simone x

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Peanut butter caramel slice

I’ll keep this brief as I know you just want the recipe!

A few things to remember.

* it is plant based so there is no added oil, no dairy, no refined sugar and no refined flours

* it won’t taste exactly like the one filled with the above ingredients; it’s better!

The recipe makes around 20 smallish slices, depending on how big you cut them.

Store them in the fridge for as long as they’ll last…around 4 days in our house.

Ingredients:

2.5 cups dates, soaked for at least 2 hours in boiling water (the longer you soak the dates, the easier it’ll be to process them)

3 tbsp of the date water

1 tbsp pure maple syrup

3 tbsp organic smooth peanut butter (use one which is made with only peanuts and no added salt or sugar)

3 cups organic rolled oats

200g quality dark chocolate (I use Whittakers 70% cocoa dark Ghana)

3tbsp plant milk

Method:

Preheat your oven to 180°

Line a large rectangular baking tray with baking paper. The tray needs to be at least 4cm deep

Drain the dates reserving 1/4 cup of the water

Transfer the dates to a food processor and blend to a paste. Add a tablespoon or 2 of water if required. You may need to scrape the sides of the bowl a few times

Add the peanut butter and pure maple syrup, blend until mixed

Add the oats 1 cup at a time. Blending until mixed, in between adding each cup. Scrape the sides of the bowl if needed. If your food processor bowl is too small, transfer the mixture to a regular mixing bowl and mix by hand

Pour the mixture into your lined tray, pressing it down evenly with a metal spoon

Cook for 20 minutes

Remove the tray from the oven and allow to cool

Break up the chocolate and place into a microwave safe bowl with the plant milk

Heat on high in 30 second increments, stirring in between until the chocolate is melted

Pour the chocolate onto the oat base and spread evenly

Place the tray in the fridge for at least 45 minutes (this part is torture but well worth it!)

Remove the slice from the tray by lifting the sides of the baking paper

Place onto a chopping board and slice into desired sizes

Store in an air tight container in the fridge.

* For a smoother base, blend the oats into flour before adding to the date mixture

* For a crumbly base, sub 1.5 cups of oats for almond flour

Enjoy and don’t forget to let me know if you make it x