Understanding Calcium & Iron for Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians: Part II

Kara Bauer Health Guide
  • Last week I spoke about the importance of understanding calcium, how it´s absorbed and why building strong bones and teeth is holistic in nature and involves other vitamins and nutrients such as Vitamin K, Vitamin D, silica and magnesium. Calcium deficiency can occur in vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike if any of these important elements are missing, very important information for those considering or already using synthetic supplementation.


    To add to the last post, another important factor to consider is that a heavy meat and dairy-based diet can actually deplete calcium. This is because a high protein diet has an unbalanced phosphorous to calcium ratio. Too much phosphorous can cause a loss of calcium in the blood and bones.[1] This is another point that explains why high dairy consuming populations also have the highest rate of osteoporosis and hip fractures.[2]

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    This week, I´d like to answer the other most common question I hear in relation to vegetarianism and veganism, which relates to iron and the avoidance of anemia. Again, whether you choose a primarily plant-based diet or not is of less importance than understading how iron needs are met and the factors involved in absorption.


    The first important thing to understand about iron is that there are two forms, heme and non-heme. Heme is the form that you find in animal products and is quite easily absorbed. The other form, non-heme, is also found in animal products but 100% of what you find in plant foods. It is less absorbable, making it necessary that vegans and vegetarians increase their daily iron intake over that of meat eaters. This is by no means impossible if one is intelligent about their diet, but if ignored or taken lightly, could also lead to iron deficiency and anemia.[3]


    To get the best possible absoprtion of iron, one should make sure that they are consuming Vitamin C in close proximity to iron packed foods. The Vegetarian Resource Group reports that Vitamin C increases non-heme absorption by 6 times.[3] Based on this niformation, often times it will require less calories of non-heme plant based foods high in Vitamin C then heme sources to get the same amount of iron. From this perspective plant based iron sources can be more efficient in meeting your daily needs.


    Plant sources of iron include beans, nuts, seeds, grains, sea vegetables, soy and some fruits and vegetabales. Ther are also iron sources that have a high Vitamin C content such as broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, strawberries, kale and bok choi. Non-heme iron foods in combination with foods high in Vitamin C such as fruits, tomato, brussel sprouts, red bell peppers and cauliflower is particulary great for optimal iron absorption. Since vegan and vegetarian diets are packed with high quality sources of both iron and Vitamin C, it´s not difficult to avoid deficiency. Keep in mind that tannins (in tea, wine and coffee) and calcium can inhibit iron absorption, an important point for vegetarians who consume dairy products. Some experts say that as long as calcium rich foods are separated from iron-rich foods by a few hours, absorption won´t be jeopardized.[4][5]


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    For those that are meat-eaters, one word of caution to keep in mind is that too much iron can be just as detrimental as too little. Your body has a certain requirement of iron for cell oxidation. However, if your have a surplus of iron in the body, which can occur if you eat a lot of meat and fortified foods, the build-up can lead to the formation of free radicals, increasing your risk of heart disease, cancer, etc. Dr. Joseph Mercola informs us that the ideal iron range is 40-60ng/ml. Below 20 is considered a deficiency and above 80 is considered a surplus. I always recommend that my coaching clients get regular blood and urine analysis to make sure that their diets are providing the correct amount of nutrients that their bodies need. It is only this way that adjustments can be made, ensuring a preventitive approach to good health.[6]


    In conclusion, if one understands the holistic nature of both calcium and iron absorption, it is easy to maintain healthy levels whether vegetarian, vegan or someone who consumes animal products.


    [1] Cousens, G. (No date). Are you eating enough protein- or too much? Retrieved from http://www.creationsmagazine.com/articles/C108/Cousens.html


    [2]Lang, S. (No date). Eating less meat may help reduce osteoporosis risk, studies show. Retrieved from http://www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/96/11.14.96/osteoporosis.html


    [3] Mangels, R. (No date). Iron in the vegan diet. Retrieved from http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.htm


    [4] Mulrooney, M. (2011, June 14). Foods high in iron and vitamin c. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/248169-foods-high-in-iron-vitamin-c/


    [5] Pubmed.gov. ¨Calcium and iron absorption: mechanism of action and nutritional importance, ¨L. Hallberg, et al. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 1992:;46(5):317-27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1600930


    [6] Mercola, J. (2009, July 14). Little-known secrets about opimal iron levels. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/07/14/Little-Known-Secrets-about-Optimal-Iron-Levels.aspx

Published On: August 20, 2012