Iron is an essential mineral that your body requires to maintain optimal health. There is a common misconception that iron is only obtained by eating meat and that iron deficiency is more prevalent amongst vegans and vegetarians. Natural, plant-based iron supplements and food can provide the iron your body needs and in some cases may even help prevent iron toxicity. If you need to shore up your iron levels, then consider the benefits of plant-based iron.
There are two primary sources of dietary iron—plant and animal foods. The technical terms for these are heme iron and nonheme iron, respectively. There has been a lot of investigation into the absorption differences between these two types of iron. Although animal, or heme, iron is absorbed faster, it can actually overwhelm your body and even lead to a serious iron imbalance known as iron toxicity. In contrast, the body absorbs plant, or nonheme, iron at a more controlled rate. Slow, regulated absorption helps keep your body’s iron levels optimal and in balance.
Fewer Health Risks
Low iron levels can lead to fatigue, chills, brain fog, or worse: iron deficiency anemia. Too much iron can lead to vomiting, intense abdominal pain, and even organ failure. Plant-based iron is absorbed more slowly and that helps maintain normal iron balance, which translates to fewer health concerns. In contrast, heme iron from animal sources (blood and tissue) has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and colon cancer. One study reported that increasing your heme iron intake by just one milligram per day could increase your risk of heart disease by 27 percent.
Cofactors and Co-nutrients
Your body has a complex set of mechanisms that work together to absorb, store, utilize, and monitor iron. Vitamin C, for example, supports your body’s ability to absorb iron. Likewise, gut health significantly influences iron uptake. By obtaining your iron from dark leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, you will also get the added benefit of vitamins, trace minerals, probiotics, and antioxidants. A healthy and consistent intake of fruit and vegetables ensures you don’t miss out on these vital nutrients.
There are reasons that extend beyond health concerns why someone may prefer a plant-based diet or lifestyle. Many people prefer to minimize their environmental impact. A diet that includes meat requires more energy, land, and water resources to support. Sticking with plant-based supplements and food for your nutritional needs reduces your environmental impact.
Best Sources of Plant-Based Iron
There are several options when it comes to plant-based sources of iron. Spinach, kidney beans, and pumpkin seeds are just a few that are good sources of iron and other vital micronutrients. However, when it comes to iron supplements, there are fewer plant-based choices. Global Healing Center is trying to change that. We’re in the final stages of development of a new vegan supplement that provides an ideal serving of plant-based iron from organic curry tree leaves.
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals required by your body. Unlike macronutrients, you only need minuscule amounts of micronutrients to maintain good health. Micronutrients are essential to the production of enzymes, hormones, proteins, and other products created by your body. Some micronutrients have a specialized role, while others fulfill a broad range of functions.
Micronutrients are incredibly important for health and wellness. Mineral deficiencies can have lasting, detrimental health consequences in children and adults of all ages. Unborn children and older adults are especially susceptible to micronutrient deficiencies, which is why many nutritional supplements are optimized for specific age groups and many staple foods, like flour, are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
However, you might be surprised to learn that food fortification can be misleading as it’s often accomplished with synthetic vitamin variants. These manufactured vitamin forms often lack the cofactors and nutrients required for proper absorption in the body. As always, it’s best to obtain naturally occurring vitamins and minerals from quality, whole-food dietary sources to ensure your body can properly utilize these essential nutrients.
What Are Vitamins?
Vitamins are organic compounds primarily derived from food that the body needs in small amounts. With the exception of vitamin D, vitamins cannot be produced by the organism that requires them. Vitamins serve a variety of purposes. Some, like vitamins A, C, and E, are antioxidants. Others, like the B vitamins, are vital for fetal brain development and healthy brain aging. There are two categories of vitamins—fat-soluble and water-soluble.
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins. Your body stores fat-soluble vitamins in fatty tissues for reserves in case you don’t meet your daily recommended intake. These vitamins are best consumed with healthy fats to ensure absorption.
Vitamin A is essential for eye and brain health. It also regulates growth and keeps the immune system healthy. Plant sources are the safest method of meeting your daily vitamin A requirement. Consumption of vitamin A from animal sources could lead to vitamin A toxicity.
Vitamin D is both a hormone and a micronutrient. Though it’s famous for its role in preserving and promoting bone health, it also helps keep your respiratory system healthy, enhances your mental and emotional well-being, and keeps your immune system functioning at peak efficiency.
Vitamin E is a powerhouse antioxidant. The various forms of the vitamin all have similar antioxidant properties, but one in particular, alpha-tocopherol, is what the body prefers most. Vitamin E protects delicate lipids from oxidation and, in the case of food, rancidity. Its actions protect your DNA by stopping free radicals from damaging the fragile structure of your chromosomes.
Vitamin K is named after the German spelling of coagulation (coagulation) because it activates the proteins in the blood that are responsible for clotting.
In humans, the water-soluble vitamins are limited to the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. These vitamins need to be replaced on a daily basis because they are not easily stored in the body. Rather, the body excretes excess water-soluble vitamins in urine.
The B-complex vitamins include thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), and cobalamin (B-12). These vitamins regulate the release of energy in cells (metabolism), serve as cofactors, and affect mood and immune health. Additionally, a healthy microbiome is essential because some probiotics actually generate B-vitamins in the gut.
Vitamin B-12 and B9 are vitally important to brain health. Research into the role of vitamin B-12 suggests it’s a powerful force in preserving memory and cognitive function as you age.
Vitamin C’s role as an antioxidant is well known (and highly marketed), but it has other roles, too. Vitamin C is incredibly important for growth and healing. The strength of connective tissue and bones and skin elasticity all depend on sufficient levels of vitamin C. It also enhances the absorption of iron from food in the small intestine.
What Are Minerals?
In general, minerals are inorganic, naturally occurring substances. In your diet, they are important nutrients that enable your cells to carry out essential functions. Minerals are divided into macrominerals and trace minerals, also known as microminerals. Predictably, your body requires macrominerals in much larger amounts than the trace minerals.
The macrominerals include magnesium, sulfur, and the electrolytes: potassium, calcium, sodium, chlorine, and phosphorous. Most people get much more sodium chloride (table salt) than they need—to the detriment of their health. While some salt is essential, you don’t need nearly as much as most Americans consume. Try to limit your salt intake whenever possible.
Magnesium is not one of the celebrity micronutrients, but it is essential to many vital processes. It plays an important role in metabolism, acting as a cofactor in hundreds of chemical reactions in the body. Magnesium is also vital to the proper bone formation and the synthesis of genetic material.
Of all the minerals, you may be most familiar with calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body. Far beyond bone strength, calcium is responsible for muscle and blood vessel relaxation and contraction, nerve firing, and communication between cells.
Most Americans, an astounding 98 percent, fall woefully short on potassium intake. Potassium is responsible for muscle and nerve function, a steady heartbeat, and cell detoxification. It acts as the inverse of sodium, which is why it’s vital to balance your sodium and potassium intake.
The body requires significantly fewer essential trace minerals (microminerals) than macrominerals. Macrominerals are measured in grams, while trace minerals are measured in milligrams and micrograms. The top microminerals you need are chromium, iron, iodine, selenium, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, and copper. You also need exceptionally small amounts of nickel, silicon, vanadium, and cobalt.
Though you need less of these micronutrients, they are extremely important to your health. Many of the most pernicious health conditions are related to deficiencies in trace minerals like iodine and iron. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide have a reduced ability to work due to iron deficiency anemia. Annually, nearly 20 million children are born to mothers with insufficient iodine levels—a condition that leads to severe cognitive impairment.
Micronutrients and Nutrition
There are only a few ways to meet your micronutrient needs: a nutrient-rich diet, quality supplementation, and, to a lesser degree, eating some types of clay or cooking in cast iron. Vitamins and minerals are easily synthesized in labs and pressed into tablets, but it’s always best to obtain your nutrition naturally from plant sources like fruits and vegetables.
At Global Healing Center, we focus on isolating the best micronutrients from natural, organic, and wildcrafted plant sources. Some of our favorite micronutrient supplements include:
- Our Selenium supplement is sourced from organic mustard seeds. It provides the selenium that is essential to the thyroid and overall health.
- Detoxadine® is an essential nascent iodine supplement produced from natural salt deposits. It’s nutritional support for immune health and the thyroid, and it promotes the detoxification of halogens such as fluoride and bromine.
- Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, is sourced from the sesbania plant; it supports healthy hair and nails at the cellular level.
- Suntrex D3™ is a vegan, lichen-derived vitamin D3 that supports the nervous system, calcium absorption, and a healthy mood.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the largest class of nutrients the body requires and include protein, carbohydrates, and fats. If you’ve heard anyone talking about “macros,” they’re referring to these major nutrients. The amounts and ratio of macronutrients a person needs every day vary by age, lifestyle (sedentary, active, or very active), gender, health status, and health goals.
The USDA provides general recommendations for how Americans should allocate calories per macronutrient.The nutrition facts label included on food packaging echoes these ratios and is based on a 2,000 calorie diet for the average American, including children and adults. Many diets try to optimize macronutrient ratios to produce certain results, like consuming protein (along with weight training) to gain muscle mass, or consuming fewer carbohydrates to help lose weight.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates include starches, sugars, and fiber. Carbohydrates contain four calories (kcal) per gram. Your body uses carbohydrates to fuel your body. Carbohydrates come in two forms: complex and simple. Simple carbohydrates include sugars like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Technically, honey and maple syrup also fall into this category. Complex carbohydrates are usually only described as starches that contain fiber, but this simplistic definition includes foods like whole wheat pasta and white potatoes.
How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans should get between 45-65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates.
Humans don’t produce the necessary enzymes to digest fiber, but it’s nonetheless required by the body. Your microbiota breaks down fiber by fermenting it and using it as their energy source. Your health relies on a balanced, well-nourished microbial gut community for many different functions, so make sure you get plenty of fiber-rich foods in your diet every day.
Sources of Carbohydrates
The best carbohydrates are micronutrient-dense whole foods that contain sugars or starches along with fiber. This definition leaves no room for confusion about whole fruit, which is considered a simple carbohydrate under some definitions. Fruit is an essential part of a healthy diet and 76% of Americans don’t eat enough. Other excellent sources of carbohydrates include winter squash, beans, and ancient grains like quinoa.
What Is Protein?
Protein is the building block responsible for the growth and maintenance of your eyes, skin, hair, nails, organs, and muscle tissue. During digestion, protein is broken down into smaller chains called peptides and individual units called amino acids for absorption. Of the 22 amino acids, nine are essential to humans. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Histidine is unique in that it’s only required during infancy.
Proteins do a lot of work throughout the body. They embed themselves in your cells to regulate what goes in and out. They even envelop and transport some molecules to other locations in the body. Enzymes that catalyze the various chemical reactions in your body are made of folded chains of amino acids. The body creates hormones like leptin, immune proteins like interferon, and antibodies using amino acids.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The USDA recommends that Americans get 5-35% of their calories from protein. This range is set to cover 97-98% of the population, and your needs may vary based on age and health status. Protein, like carbohydrates, provides four calories (kcal) of energy per gram.
Sources of Protein
Whole, nutrient-dense foods are the best sources of protein. Notice I did not say they are the most concentrated sources of protein. So-called “high-quality” sources are very concentrated sources of peptides that share similar amino acid ratios with humans. Essentially, the more a source of protein resembles human tissue in amino acid composition, the better its “quality.” Regularly eating meat, just like regularly consuming concentrated sources of sugar, leads to several serious, and completely preventable health consequences. If you think eating organic, free-range, grass-fed meat is significantly better than factory farmed meat, then wouldn’t it also follow that soda with 100% organic high-fructose corn syrup is equally healthy when compared to regular soda? That’s clearly not the case. It’s important to understand that some foods have few redeeming qualities, organic or not. Just because something is less bad for you than the standard option doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Many people believe that plants only supply “incomplete proteins.” The need for protein complementation is a myth perpetuated in poorly researched literature. To be clear, all plant foods contain the nine essential amino acids. You won’t develop a protein deficiency on a plant-based diet. In fact, protein deficiencies only occur in those who have gone long periods without eating anything at all.
What Is Fat?
Weighing in at nine calories (kcal) per gram, fat is the densest source of energy in the diet. In the body, fats make up cell membranes, steroids, cholesterol, and 60% of your brain. Fats support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, cushion your organs, and act as your largest form of energy storage.
Dietary fats include saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats tend to come from animal sources, while most plant fats are unsaturated. There are also important essential fatty acids, namely omega-3 and omega-6.
There’s another type of fat, an unnatural type, known as trans fats. Trans fats are a product of food manufacturing and are created by hydrogenating less stable unsaturated fats to be more shelf stable. This process prolongs the life of processed food products. Trans fats are often described as poison, and it’s a description that’s fairly accurate. Trans fats raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol and have no place in a healthy diet.
How Much Fat Do You Need?
Like carbohydrates, the popularity of fat waxes and wanes with public opinion and even medical opinion as new diets and research emerge. Currently, according to the USDA, fats should account for 20-40% of your daily calories. Essential fats are undoubtedly a necessary component of a healthy diet. Some of the best sources of healthy fats are nuts, seeds, coconuts, avocados, and olives. Like the most healthy sources of proteins and carbohydrates, the fats in nuts and fatty fruits contain fiber, beneficial micronutrients, and phytonutrients that keep you healthy.
Sources of Fat
Just like with carbohydrates and protein, the best sources of fat are plant-based and nutrient dense. Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, coconut, and unsweetened dark chocolate are all excellent sources of fat that come with a healthy serving of phytonutrients and fiber. As always, I recommend whole foods over processed.
However, if you’re looking for healthy oils you have quite a few options: flaxseed, hemp seed, avocado, grapeseed, sunflower, walnut, sesame, and coconut oils. I highly recommend flaxseed oil for room temperature or colder dishes like salad dressings or hummus. For cooking, use oils that have a higher smoke point like grapeseed, coconut, avocado and sesame oil. When purchasing oils, always make sure the label says “expeller-pressed” and “unrefined.” Otherwise, the oil may have been extracted using chemicals and subjected to extensive processing, which disturbs the delicate essential fatty acids in the oil.
The Problem With Focusing on Macros
When you focus on optimizing the ratios or percentages of your macronutrients, you might forget to concentrate on the quality of the food itself. Make sure to eat a balanced combination of whole, plant-based foods that contribute to your health. Your macros may vary from one day to the next, but your body’s needs may differ based on your activity level, health status, schedule, or other factors. If you’re trying to make a big change in your diet and lifestyle, consider working with a certified dietician or nutrition counselor that can evaluate your needs, help you set achievable goals, and create a personalized diet plan for you.
The ultimate goal of any good diet is to fuel your day-to-day activities while keeping yourself properly nourished. Make sure the foods you chose are micronutrient dense. These nutrients are required in significantly smaller amounts, but they have a much larger impact on your health.