Nutrients That Plant Based Eaters Must be Mindful of (Part 2) – Iron, DHA/EPA and Iodine + Iron and Calcium Rich Smoothie
By Molly Patrick
Jan 31, 2017,
Hi my peach,
This is the second of a two part series all about the nutrients that plant based eaters need to be mindful of. Specifically iron DHA/EPA and iodine
We can get most of the nutrients that the bod needs directly from the plants we eat, we just have to make sure that we’re eating a wide range of whole plant foods on the daily. We also have to take a B12 supplement as I talked about last week.
Wake up – check
Take B12 – check
Eat lots of different plants – check
Move your bod – check
Be nice to people – check
Deal with hard life shit – check
Enjoy happy life shit – check
Kick ass – check
Go to bed – check
No need to over-complicate it. Now let’s jump back on the food bus (kind of like the school bus but WAY better).
When you avoid meat, dairy and processed food, it’s easy to eat a wide variety of whole plant foods because every single meal and snack is made up of various plant foods. As a bonus, when you stop eating animal based foods and processed foods, you avoid the saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, trans fats, antibiotics, sugar, artificial ingredients and other gunk that works against your health instead of for it.
As another bonus, when you fill up on plants, not only do you get an awesome dose of fiber each day, you also get an abundance of phytochemicals that protect your cells and can even repair damaged cells.
Eating for your health is all about eating lots of whole plant foods. Now, there are a few important nutrients that even a super healthy plant based diet isn’t naturally high in. If you eat nothin’ but plants, like me and so many others, you should be aware of these nutrients and where to get them. There’s nothing sexier than a clued up plant eater.
Last week I schooled you on vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium. This week I’m covering iron, DHA/EPA and iodine.
Okay – let’s talk nutrients.
USA Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA):
8 mg/day for men age 19 and over, 18 mg/day for menstruating women age 19-50, and 8 mg/day for women over 50. No one over the age of 14 should exceed 45 mg/day. RDAs (and max intake) for iron are different during younger life stages, as well as during pregnancy and lactation. You can view the Institute of Medicine’s 2006 recommendations for iron here (see pg. 328).
Why it’s important:
Iron is an essential mineral that helps transport oxygen throughout the body.
The best plant based sources:
- Sesame seeds: 1 oz = 4.2 mg (a bit less than 1/4 cup)
- Blackstrap molasses: 2 tablespoons = 3.8 mg
- Lentils: 1/2 cup cooked = 3.3 mg
- Spinach: 1/2 cup cooked = 3.2 mg
- Asparagus: 1 cup = 2.8 mg
- Mushrooms, white button: 1 cup cooked = 2.7 mg
- Black beans: 1/2 cup cooked = 2.6 mg
- Garbanzo beans: 1/2 cup cooked = 2.4 mg
- Pinto beans: 1/2 cup cooked = 2.2 mg
- Pumpkin seeds: 1 cup = 2.1 mg
(These aren’t the only foods that have iron, these are just the ones with the most iron. Most all plant foods have some iron, legumes of all varieties have the most)
- Plant based eaters are not more prone to iron deficiency anemia than meat eaters. It’s just as common for people who eat meat to be iron deficient as it is for plant based eaters.
- Non-heme iron is the iron found in plants. Heme iron is the iron found in animals. Non-heme iron is the best choice for iron because it’s self regulating. Meaning, if we need more iron, the body will absorb more and if we’re cool in the iron department, the body will absorb less. This is important because excess iron may increase risk of metabolic syndrome, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers. When heme iron is consumed, the body does not self regulate it and excess iron can easily build up.
- Vitamin C helps increase non-heme iron absorption by A LOT, so if your iron levels are low and you already eat lots of iron-rich plant foods, include foods that are high in vitamin C alongside your non-heme-iron-rich meals. Oranges, kiwis, grapefruit, papaya, strawberries, broccoli, green leafy veggies and red peppers are all super high in vitamin C.
- The essential amino acid lysine also helps increase non-heme iron absorption. Lysine is found in legumes (peanuts, beans, lentils and peas) and quinoa. Most healthy plant based eaters eat plenty of legumes and quinoa, but if you’re not eating different legumes every single day or eating quinoa regularly, you should up your intake of these foods.
- Calcium supplements, dairy, coffee, black tea and green tea inhibit iron absorption, so avoid these during your meals.
- There are three stages of iron deficiency. The first is iron depletion. This is when your iron is low but you don’t feel any differently. The second stage is iron deficiency. If you’re iron deficient, you might feel tired and you might be sensitive to cold. The third stage is iron deficiency anemia. If you have iron deficiency anemia, you will likely experience exhaustion, headaches, feel lethargic and feel irritable. If you have iron deficiency anemia and you eat plant based, your doctor may tell you that you should start to eat meat. This isn’t necessary. There are other ways to get your iron levels up. Jack Norris, plant based advocate and registered dietitian recommends taking 100mg of vitamin C tablets with two iron-rich plant based meals per day for 60 days and getting then your iron levels checked again after that. You would need to avoid coffee and tea with those meals because as discussed, those limit iron absorption.
How I get my Iron:
I eat a wide variety of whole plant foods every single day at every single meal and snack. I’m sure to include lots of the iron-rich plant foods listed above. I never drink coffee and I don’t drink tea with meals.
Last time I was tested, my iron was low so I started adding a few slices of orange and grapefruit with my meals. I’ve always had a ton of energy, even when my iron levels tested low, so I’m not too concerned.
I’ll go back to the doctor later this year and have my levels checked again.
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OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS DHA/EPA
USA Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA):
There is no RDA for omega-3 fatty acids, however, Dr. Greger recommends taking 250 mg a day of algae derived long-chain omega-3’s EPA and DHA for brain function and preservation.
Why these fats are important:
Long chain omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA used to be touted for being important for heart health, but more recent studies show that this doesn’t hold up and that they do not protect from heart disease. They DO however play an important role in overall brain health. Those with adequate levels of DHA and EPA have less shrinkage in the brain as they age.
The best plant based source:
Algae derived supplements
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Notes:
- There are two types of essential fatty acids that the body needs but cannot manufacture on its own; omega-3 and omega-6. The most common omega-3 fatty acid is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the most common omega-6 fatty acid is linoleic acid (LA). If you eat a tablespoon or two of chia seeds, hemp seeds and/or ground flax seeds on a daily basis, you should be set in the ALA and the LA department.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short chain fatty acid found in plant foods, like flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. The body has the ability to turn ALA into DHA and EPA, the long chain fatty acids that you get from fish. The problem is, it’s not clear whether or not the body can make enough DHA/EPA from ALA. That’s why Dr. Greger and other doctors and registered dietitians recommend taking a daily DHA/EPA supplement.
- Fish don’t actually make EPA and DHA; they’re made by micro-algae in the ocean. Fish eventually wind up with this fat in their system because they eat smaller fish who grub on micro-algae. So it’s true that fish contains beneficial DHA and EPA, but fish also contains dangerous pollutants and heavy metals from the polluted oceans. These pollutants bring on a whole new layer of health concerns, so it’s best to skip the fish and the fish oil and make sure you get plenty of healthy ALA fats in your diet that can be turned into DHA/EPA and/or take a DHA/EPA supplement to be on the safe side. If you do take a supplement, you should still eat flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds regularly.
- Two thirds of plant based eaters fall short of the recommended omega 3 index of 4.4% (a measure of EPA and DHA levels). Having less than 4% is associated with accelerated brain aging. Omnivores will also benefit from taking a DHA/EPA supplement because their levels are often low as well.
- Diets that are high in omega-6 fatty acids can suppress the body’s ability to convert omega-3 fatty acid into DHA/EPA. Safflower oil, corn oil and soybean oil all have high levels of omega-6. These are the most common oils used in junk food and processed food. Staying away from these oils will help your body synthesize its own DHA/EPA. We do need omega 6 fatty acids, but not nearly as much as most people get. A good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is between 1:1 and 4:1 (most people eating the Standard American Diet have ratios of 25:1!). If you follow a healthy plant based diet, avoid oil and eat a variety of nuts and seeds, your ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 should be fine.
How I get my DHA/EPA:
I recommend and take Complement Plus. It’s really good because it is designed specifically for plant based eaters. It gives you what you need and nothing you don’t need. Save 15% by using the discount code PLANTFUELEDLIFE. If you purchase from this link, we make a small commission.
Of course, there are many other supplements out there, so definitely look around and choose whichever one looks best for you!
USA Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA):
150 mcg (note, that’s microgram not milligram). No more than 1,000mcg a day.
Why it’s important:
Iodine is an important mineral for healthy thyroid function.
The best plant based sources:
- A small serving of dulse, wakame or nori seaweed a few times a week.
- 75 mcg iodine supplement several times a week.
- 1/4 teaspoon of iodized sea salt on your food throughout the day (this isn’t the best option, especially if you have high blood pressure or have an increased risk for heart disease).
(choose one of these methods, not all)
- Cruciferous veggies when eaten raw, like broccoli, cabbage, kale and collard greens have something called goitrogenic compounds which can interfere with thyroid function in people with low iodine intake. That doesn’t mean we should avoid these super healthy foods, it just means that we need to make sure to get enough iodine. You can also cook cruciferous veggies to avoid the goitrogenic compounds because the enzyme that releases these compounds is deactivated during cooking.
- Iodine isn’t found a lot in plant foods because iodine levels in soil are low. Seaweed is the only reliable plant food that has naturally occurring iodine. This is probably why most plant based eaters in the U.S. are deficient in iodine – not a lot of people here in the U.S. make it a practice to eat seaweed.
- It’s important to get the daily requirement of iodine, but too much can be as harmful as too little. There are lots of different types of seaweeds and they all have different levels of iodine. Kelp and kombu are both so high in iodine that it’s actually better to avoid them. Wakame, nori and dulse have safe levels, so stick with these if you want to get your iodine from food instead of a supplement or iodized salt.
- It’s unclear whether or not dried kombu in a pot of beans or grains when cooking poses a risk for iodine toxicity. I still do this from time to time. One thing you can do is boil the kombu for about 10 minutes before you add it to your beans or grains. Boiling the kombu will release some of the iodine. Eden brand adds kombu to their canned beans, but iodine levels are within a safe range in all of their products.
- The seaweed hijiki has been shown to have high levels of arsenic, so it’s best to avoid it.
- Iodine is found in dairy products because iodine solutions are used to clean dairy equipment and cow boobs and the iodine-rich solution actually ends up in the milk. #PrettyYucky
How I get my Iodine:
I recommend and take Complement Plus for my Iodine. It’s really good because it is designed specifically for plant based eaters. It gives you what you need and nothing you don’t need. Save 15% by using the discount code PLANTFUELEDLIFE. If you purchase from this link, we make a small commission.
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Let’s land this baby with a simple recap. To thrive on a healthy plant based diet and get all of the protective health benefits from eating this way, make sure you do the following:
- Eat a wide range of whole plant foods on the daily. This means lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
- Take a B12 supplement.
- Make sure you get out in the sun every single day for 15 minutes with arms and legs exposed, or take a vitamin D supplement.
- Make sure you’re eating lots of calcium-rich plant foods.
- Make sure you eat lots of iron-rich plant foods alongside foods that are rich in vitamin C.
- Eat 1 tablespoon of flax seeds or chia seeds a day and consider supplementing with 250 mg of algae-based DHA/EPA.
- Checkout the plant based supplement I take (save 15% with discount code PLANTFUELEDLIFE), or choose what’s best for you
- Incorporate dulse, nori or wakame into your diet a few times a week to get enough iodine, but not too much.
- Sign up for Plant Fueled Life to ensure a constant yummy mix and variety of whole plant foods rich in nutrients and fiber.
- Be prepared to THRIVE, baby, THRIVE!
Eating a healthy plant based diet is one of the best things that you can do for your short term and your long term health. If you’re making an effort to eat lots of plants, I tip my hat to you, and I bow.
- 8 oz unsweetened soy milk
- 1 tablespoon raw pumpkin seeds
- 1/2 cup frozen strawberries 75 g
- 1 cup collard greens 30 g
- 1 cup bok choy 40 g
- 1 ripe banana
- Place all of the ingredients into your blender and blend until creamy and smooth.
Wishing you a happy week. May it be filled with kicking ass.
Safety of heme vs non-heme iron
All about non-heme iron
Fish oil no longer being recommended for heart health
DHA/EPA for the heart
DHA/EPA for brain health
Iodine content in common seaweeds
Too much iodine can be as harmful as too little
Eden canned beans and iodine levels Iodine and healthy thyroid function
easy plant based recipes, easy vegan recipes, easy whole food plant based recipes, green smoothie recipe, healthy vegan recipes
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Thank you for the reminder to take my B-100 Complex more regularly!!! As a migraine sufferer, there is a lot of evidence that high doses of Riboflavin (B2) helps prevent the attacks. I’ve been slacking… no more!
Wow, to find a tasty and healthy smoothie is not an easy task. Thank you for sharing this recipe. Will definitely try it this weekend.
Hello Molly! Which DHA/EPA supplement did you decide upon? I’ve been looking into this as well. Thanks!
Hi catmarly, Molly has been using Complement from Lightdrop and she likes it.
Team Dirty Girl
I have started taking kelp powder (1/4 t daily) to replace the iodine I lost when I switched to Himilayan and/or Kosher salt from table salt. Any thoughts on kelp power? DM
Hi Doreen, Thanks for stopping by. You might consider a different source of iodine based on this content from Nutritionfacts.org. ~Karen
How to get iodine when I am allergic to seafood, kelp, all products from the ocean?. Like anaphylaxis. Also I can’t eat nuts!!
Hi Stephanie, I use iodized salt in the Meal Plan recipes (and other recipes I make). You don’t need much iodized salt to meet the RDA. You’ll also get small amounts of iodine from various plant foods. Check out this fact sheet on iodine from the National Institutes of Health. You can check the table to see where you fall for Recommended Daily Allowance and then maybe use a nutrient tracker (like Cronometer) for a short period of time (3-5 days) to make sure you are meeting the RDA consistently. Other than these resources, you might talk to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian for guidance given your allergies and if you don’t want to use iodized salt (you might need a supplement recommendation in that case). Hope this helps. ~Karen
My friend is a part of your group and I’ve watched her and listened to her improve her health dramatically. I am about to follow suit and if my family wants to join me, they can. Otherwise, they are on their own. After reading this article about iodine and the thyroid, I’m confused about how this will react to my body. I have Grave’s and my thyroid was ablated. I take Synthroid every morning and will have to the rest of my life. The dose is adjusted every six months or so. I know changing to a plant-based diet is going to greatly improve my health, I just don’t want to mess up my thyroid.
Hi Carole, this is an important question but we are just not qualified to answer it. This would be something to discuss with your endocrinologist and/or a registered dietitian to be sure that you won’t have special considerations with regards to your medication and thyroid status. With normal thyroid function and particularly because WFPB will increase consumption of cruciferous veggies and, for many, soy on a regular basis, it’s important to obtain adequate iodine as sea salt is typically not iodized and, outside of Asian cultures, most of us do not consume sea veggies on a regular enough basis to meet iodine needs. You can request a copy of our sample meal plan here that you can print off and take in to your health care provider so they can get an idea of what a menu might look like for the week. ~Karen
This looks delish, but I understood that having spinach at the same time that you consume calcium blocks the calcium by being absorbed by the body?
Hi Michelle – indeed. We’ve updated this recipe to call for low-oxalate greens because the calcium in spinach and chard would not be absorbable. I don’t know that the spinach (or chard) would block additional calcium, from a calcium-fortified milk, but certainly the calcium in those greens is already bound up and would not be absorbed. Thanks for checking us out and commenting here! ~Karen
Ah that explains the picture of the beautiful Swiss chard attached to a recipe with bok choy and collards.
Ah yes, what better way to consume non-heme iron than with lot of calcium to further inhibit its absorption? I give an automatic eye roll to anyone pushing “clean eating” but I saw this blunder in the title in a google search while looking for the best foods to up iron intake and just… sigh.
While calcium has been shown to inhibit iron absorption – the many studies that have shown this are based on research methods that do not reflect typical meal composition. Rather, they are single meal studies. This 2010 paper authored by a respected University of California, Davis researcher, Bo Lönnerdal, whose research has studied iron uptake, goes into the consideration that it’s likely the mucosa of the small intestine adapts to absorb more iron over time in the presence of elevated dietary calcium and concludes that “the total absence of any negative effect of iron status of vulnerable groups fed high levels of calcium with meals for long periods of time does not warrant any dramatic change in recommendations regarding calcium intake or how it is distributed among the meals during the day.” Prevailing nutrition recommendations do not call for separating out calcium-containing meals from iron-containing meals. In a plant-based dietary pattern, consuming iron-containing foods (typically beans, grains, dark leafy greens) with vitamin-C-containing foods (citrus, tomato, peppers, etc) is the recommendation to maximize iron absorption. This would also apply to omnivores that avoid red meat. ~Karen
Interesting! I could not even get my iron levels up eating daily red meat and an iron supplement, the only time I could is when I drank 100% orange juice every day. Im now using BSM .
I’m just looking for recipes to get ideas on what to eat as I’ve gone off meat and salmon, this happens all the time , I get aversions for no reason. I just don’t know how to eat plant based without being boring and meeting nutritional needs.
Hi Emma, Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you were able to maintain normal iron levels with orange juice. Are you willing to share – what is BSM?
As Molly talks about, with a plant based dietary pattern the main consideration is using citrus or other vitamin-C containing fruits/veggies as a complement to meals with iron-rich components (typically legumes and greens). Vitamin C makes the non-heme iron found in plants significantly more bioavailable for absorption.
As far as not getting bored with your meals and eating nutritional diversity, our Meal Plans are a great place to start. The meals are lush – it’s not uncommon to hear from subscribers that say the meal is way tastier and as fancy as eating at a restaurant. While we don’t calculate macro- or micronutrient composition, our plans are strategized to include the spectrum of plants – veggies, dark leafy greens, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit, and spices.
We have a free Trial meal plan (#Trial) that gives access to our new classroom and all its features – including recipe scaling. #Trial was originally released to our subscribers as #TakeOut – so it’s based on meals that might traditionally be ordered as takeout. #Trial doesn’t expire – so if you request it and just aren’t ready to tackle a full meal plan yet, you can come back when you are. And, requesting #Trial does not automatically convert over to a paying subscription, so there is absolutely no risk to request it. Head over here to request it out if you have interest! ~Karen
Please include copper in your blog. When I was anemic only copper helped me absorb the iron. Also the only iron pill that worked for me was one where they grew the iron into algae then squished these plants into a pill – the iron from the doctor wasn’t absorbing! But the copper helped me finally, to absorb it but the vitamin c did not
Yes, the name of this recipe promotes redundancy. Calcium blocks the absorption of iron so you should never consume dairy while eating or it defeats the purpose of ingesting iron-rich foods to prevent deficiency.
Thanks for your comment. Check out this reply for our thoughts on the issue.