The second most common complaint I hear from all plant-based, vegetarian and vegan eaters is they often feel tired and fatigued. The reason this is happening is because when you cut out significant food groups out of your diets, you become at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies. DISCLAIMER: This is not personalized health advice. Please check with your medical doctor or registered dietitian for your health concerns.
Eating a Balanced Diet
Looking for a delicious and satisfying vegan recipe? Check out this one HERE.
Iron deficiency is one of largest nutrient deficiencies in the world with many contributing factors. It’s prevalent in both omnivore and vegan/vegetarian diets, with the latter having greater risk for it (1, 2). One of the most common reasons for fatigue and low energy in vegan, vegetarian and more plant-based diets is because of either low or no consumption of heme iron. This depends on the source of where you get your iron from.
Animal sources, such as lean meats and seafood contain both heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is the more bioavailable source of iron, easier absorbed by the body and the richest source of iron. Heme iron is only found in animal sources. 14-18% of iron consumed from a mixed diet of plants, meat and seafood protein and vitamin C is absorbed and used by the body.
Non heme iron comes from plant sources (dark leafy greens, nuts, legumes, tofu) and fortified cereals (oats, enriched breads, bran). Without getting too much into the biochemistry of why (I try to limit my blogs less than 1200 words), non-heme iron is not as bioavailable or well absorbed as heme iron. 5-12% non heme iron in vegan/vegetarian and fortified sources is usable in the human body, with certain other nutrients in these diets inhibiting the absorption of non-heme iron (3, 4).
In dietetics, we have a measurement called Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), the daily intake level suggested to help people reach the nutrient requirement. Because of the lack of heme iron in plant sources of iron, for vegetarians and vegans the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 1.8x the amount for omnivores (5).
How Can I Increase my Energy Levels by Maximizing Iron Absorption?
Instead of coffee or tea in the morning (both have shown to decrease iron absorption 6, 7) try ½ cup (120 mL) of 100% orange juice mixed with water to go with your oatmeal power bowl in the morning. The vitamin C from the orange juice will help to increase the absorption of iron from the oats. Add other sources of plant-based iron, including nuts and seeds. Cashews, chia seed, pumpkin seeds and ground flax seeds are excellent options.
A Filling Vegan Lunch
A vegan salad with marinated tofu, red peppers, and avocados on top of spinach, like this one, can help you get both your protein and iron requirements. Did you know that red peppers are actually an excellent source of vitamin C? The vitamin C in the red peppers will help with the absorption of non-heme iron in the tofu.
Balanced Bowls for Dinner
This Orange Tarragon Ginger Shrimp With Rice Noodles recipe is an excellent evening meal for people who are trying to go more plant-based by lowering their meat consumption, but are still eating seafood. Shrimp adds vitamin B12 and the orange juice adds vitamins B6, C and folate.
Workout Recovery Smoothie
If you ask for my recommendation of a good plant-based protein powder, I like Vega. Not sponsored!
Summary of Plant-based Diets, Iron and Vitamin C
If you are eating more plant-based meals or are vegetarian/vegan, consider the role of important nutrients such as vitamin C and non-heme iron for adequate intake. If you still need guidance from a professional, speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian for help.
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