Vegans cannot get enough iron from a plant-based diet to maintain proper health.
Iron is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, a protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. There are two kinds of iron absorbed by the body; heme and nonheme. Heme iron is not regulated by the body, which means it is always absorbed, while nonheme iron is regulated by the body and absorbed when it is needed. Both are present in meat, but only nonheme iron is present in plants and fortified foods. This is important because a surplus of this nutrient can be as damaging as a deficiency, and only those people who eat meat or take iron supplements are in danger of a surplus. Conversely, a whole-foods, plant-based diet can safely meet the body's iron needs.
Some prominent health organizations list vegetarians and vegans among other at-risk groups for iron deficiency, which can foster the mistaken belief that plant-based diets do not provide sufficient iron. This is because historically, iron deficiency was a widespread public health concern, and the body's ready absorption of heme iron helped to address it. However, this conservative position does not address the negative consequences of iron surplus, an escalating problem especially in older men as a result of increased meat consumption. These negative consequences can include diabetes, heart disease and liver damage, since iron is a pro-oxidant the body cannot eliminate. Conversely, human bodies have evolved to regulate the absorption of nonheme iron so they receive only what they can use, and there are many safe sources of iron in a plant-based diet. For instance, 3oz. of dark chocolate contains more iron than an equal serving of beef liver, and 3oz. of lentils contains more iron than 3oz. of beef, duck or lamb. So it is easy to see that plants can and do provide equally plentiful and safer sources of iron than animals do.
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