Saturday, February 7, 2015

No Ironman - overcoming iron deficiency

Recently I went to the lab to get my blood work done. I figured it would be good to see if I checked all the boxes. The thought was that after about two years on a plant-based diet and with a significant amount of physical activity each week, I should make sure I am not falling short in the nutrition department.

I claim for myself to eat a healthy and balanced diet, but you never know right? Quite frankly I thought all my markers would be stellar and I could just walk around secretly feeling awesome and self righteous for a few days.

The only supplements I take are vitamin D and B12 about 2 or 3 times a week. I pretty much have a big smoothie and a salad everyday and try my best to make them even "awesomerer" by adding some of them highly touted super foods like hemp and chia seeds, ground flax and spirulina algae powder. You get the picture. So I was surprised when my superfoods didn't yield all but super results. My test came back showing an iron deficiency. I was scoring a 5 with the normal range being 15 to something outrageous like 300 ug/l. The blood test showed that all other markers were in a healthy range though including my hemoglobin which is dependent on iron stores. So this was cause for caution not panic.

I am currently trying to get my iron values back to an optimal range with nutrition rather than supplementation, since there are some known issues with digesting iron supplements for many people. In order to make sure I get enough iron from food, I started to investigate good plant sources of iron and factors that influence its absorption. In my case I am afraid the consumption of green tea at or right around meal time is one of the culprits for my deficiency. I found different recommendations for the consumption of coffee and tea around meal time. Some sources recommend as much as avoiding tea or coffee from one hour before until two hours after an iron rich meal in order not to interfere with iron absorption. Since we are generally encouraged to eat smaller meals more frequently, this would make it very difficult for me to continue my green tea drinking habit, which replaced my coffee drinking habit back in the day. Apparently it is the tannic acid in these drinks that is responsible for the inhibition of the iron absorption.  Vitamin C on the other hand makes iron absorption more efficient, so combining Vitamin C rich foods with iron rich foods is highly recommended.

As with everything else there are other factors and more information (some controversial or contradictory) on the things that help or hinder the absorption of plant or non-heme iron. Spinach is a great source of iron for example, but it has oxalic acid which some sources claim hinders its absorption.

Using a cast iron skillet is another way to increase the iron content of the food prepared in it and I have since heard an account of a significant improvement in blood iron levels after starting to use cast iron cookware. What I didn't know when I bought the skillet was the fact that it will need to be seasoned with oil before it is ready to use or else it will start to rust. Here is how it works.

I feel good now, but maybe I can feel better and stronger with higher iron stores. Intriguing thought.

Here are some good sources of information I found on the subject:

Good overview on the subject

Good, easy digestible (pun intended) article on iron for vegetarians

Good info plus tables with iron and vitamin c rich plants

I am not a medical professional and this blog entry is no substitute for medical advice.

Does anybody have experience dealing with iron deficiency with or without supplements?
What worked? What didn't?