Iron deficiency is considered one of the greatest health risks by The World Health Organization.  One reason for this deficiency is simply that people are unaware of the difference between plant-based iron and iron from meat.  As meatless meals are increasing in populatrity, it is important to be conscienous of the important vitamins and minerals that aren't as easy to find in plant-based products.  Iron is a trace mineral that has two forms: heme and non-heme, and yes, it is important to know the differences between the two.  When eating a veggie burger containing iron versus a burger made from beef, you're going to be consuming non-heme iron.  But what does all this mean, and why should you care? 

Functions of Iron

The term trace minerals makes them sound as though they're not all that necessary.  Contrarily, The World Health Organization states that women need a whopping 18 mg a day until they enter menopause.  Once menstruation ceases, the RDA becomes the same as for men: 8 mg.  It is important that the RDA is consumed so that iron can metabolize and transport oxygen.       

  Hemoglobin is a protein in your body that is made of iron.  This protein helps red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.  Myoglobin is another protein in your body that is also made of iron.  This protein is found in muscle tissue, and it transports oxygen from red blood cells to your cardiac and skeletal muscle cells.  Without myoglobin, you'll feel tired and out of breath.  Furthermore, iron is needed for the production of lymphocytes and NK (natural killer) cells.  NK cells fight infections, and lymphocytes are white blood cells that play a major roll in your immune system;  They fight off foreign substances such as bacteria, viruses, and even cancer cells.  Iron also is involved cognitive development because it aids in the synthesis of dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine Knowing the difference between plant-based iron and iron from meat can drastically help with your iron intake levels as well.       

Where to Find Iron

sandwich, cheese, bun
Caroline Liu

If you're a health concerned carnivore, you have plenty of options when it comes to iron filled foods.  The richest sources of iron are meat and seafood- especially poultry, oysters, veal, shrimp, beef, and sardines.  All animals contain hemoglobin and myoglobin, so by eating meat and seafood you're obtaining heme iron.  This form of iron is readily absorbed by the body, which is good news for those who consume it in moderation.  The vegans and vegetarians out there rely on non-heme iron;  which is found in supplements, beans, dried fruits, fortified grains, potatoes, peas, tofu, spinach and other dark leafy greens, nuts, sesame seeds.  Additionally, vegetarians can find non-heme iron in eggs.  Plant-based meat replacements also tend to contain ample amounts of non-heme iron: various veggie and black bean burgers, plant based chicken nuggets, and even vegan seafood are great sources.   

What Happens if You Don't Meet The RDA?

Toxicity from iron overload is a real thing.  The Upper Level of iron is set at 45 mg per day.  Because of the risk of overdoing it, it is not recommended that you take iron supplements unless you have an iron deficiency or difficulty absorbing iron. It is your best bet to ask your doctor or dietician before going to the drug store.  Symptoms for iron deficiency and anemia include fatigue, weakening of your immune system, brittle nails, cold hands and feet, and delayed cognitive function.  Those who don't consume heme iron are more likely to face iron deficiency.  Non-heme iron is naturally regulated by the body, but it is not as easily absorbed.  Consuming vitamin C and other organic acids alongside non-heme iron will help with the absorption process.  Vitamin C stores non heme iron in a form that is more easy to absorb.  Drinking juice or eating fruit with your plant based veggie burger will result in a 67% increased iron absorption rate

Tips on How to Absorb Iron

paella, tomato, onion, meat, vegetable, pepper, curry, peppers, tofu, vegetarian, pan, skillet
Julia Gilman

Since non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed, it is important to be aware of the vitamins and minerals you are receiving when cutting back on meat and seafood. Surprisingly, swapping the microwave for a cast iron skillet may increase the iron in your food because the iron in cookware can leach into food.  Vegetarians and vegans beware:  drinking tea or coffee alongside your meals will drastically decrease your non-heme iron absorption.  Heme iron is unaffected by these dehydrating beverages, but non-heme iron absorption may be reduced as low as 62%.  Your body will thank you for staying hydrated with good ole' fashion H2O.  

In Conclusion

cereal, candy, sweet
Kristine Mahan

The difference between plant-based iron and iron from meat is not something you want to ignore.  Iron deficiency is a serious problem in the world today.  By following these simple guidelines, iron deficiency can be more easily avoided.  If you're stressed that you might not be getting enough iron in your diet, just one serving of most cereals will get you to your RDA of iron- especially if you drink juice with your breakfast.  So unless you're experiencing the symptoms of iron deficiency or anemia, your diet is just fine- as far as it goes for this trace mineral...  You may also be surprised to find iron in other packaged foods- Just check the nutrition label.