One of our Twitter friends recently asked the following question:
To @thisdishisveg if you could also include some great ideas for iron and omega 3? I eat fish because when i was full veg. i’d get dizzy a lot.
Consuming adequate amounts of iron and omega 3 fatty acids are both very important factors in maintaining optimum health. Luckily, they are both abundant in many plant foods.
Iron is a nutrient that should be paid some attention when transitioning to a plant diet based diet. It is an essential nutrient, as it assists our blood in carrying oxygen via hemoglobin. This is why a lack of iron can certainly make you feel tired or dizzy! There are 2 kinds of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body, but it is found only in animal products, and makes up about 40% of their iron content. Non-heme, though absorbed less readily, is abundant in all plant food sources. This absorption issue is why the iron requirement is higher for vegans than for meat eaters. The good news is that a well balanced vegan diet will provide you ample intake, and absorption, of iron.
Leafy greens are one of the best sources of iron. Prime sources are kale, parsley, collard greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens. Other vegetables high in iron are asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, watercress, and brussel sprouts. Although they are high in iron content, spinach and chard are NOT good sources of iron because they contain oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is a substance that binds with iron and inhibits its absorption. However, it’s okay to eat these greens in moderation, as long as you are not relying on them as your iron source.
Some iron rich fruits are mulberries, cherries, apricots, figs, raisins, and dates. Seeds can also be a very high source of iron, the most iron rich being pumpkin seeds. Other seeds to include in your diet are sesame seeds and sunflower seeds. Grains to look for are quinoa and millet. Legumes such as black-eyed peas, lentils, kidney beans, lima beans, and chickpeas are also effective sources. And don’t forget about almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts and pistachios. Tofu and soy are also good sources, and many dairy free milks are often fortified with iron. Blackstrap molasses is a very rich source as well.
When considering iron, it’s important to understand that vitamin C helps your body absorb iron from food. This is especially noteworthy when eating foods that contain non-heme iron. Fortunately, many vegetables that are high in iron are also high in vitamin C, such as broccoli and bok choy. Another way to increase your iron absorption is through conscious food choices and food combining. Eating beans with tomatoes, for example, will increase your iron uptake due to the high Vitamin C in tomatoes. Hummus is an excellent choice because it combines iron rich chickpeas with the high vitamin C content of lemons! Other foods high in vitamin C are potatoes, kale, brussels sprouts, peppers and many fruits.
You should take caution to avoid consuming tea, coffee and/or calcium supplements during an iron rich meal. Both calcium and tannins (tannins are found in tea and coffee) reduce iron absorption. They should be ingested at least a few hours before or after an iron rich meal. With all the foods mentioned, it is best to eat them in their RAW form, or as close to raw as possible, in order to achieve maximum benefit.
Omega 3 fatty acids are very important for inflammation control. Our bodies need a balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. Unfortunately, many of us consume foods that are high in omega 6, and not enough omega 3, leading to inflammation. As for omega 3 plant food sources, I have a personal favorite… chi-chi-CHIA! Who remembers those old commercials where you sprinkle the seeds on your Chia Pet and it grows into a fun little plant?! Those silly little seeds are actually nutritional powerhouses! In addition to being a potent source of omega 3s, chia seeds are high in calcium, protein, fiber, and act as blood sugar stabilizers by slowing down the conversion of carbohydrates into sugars. Chia seeds are hydrophilic (water loving) and will quickly absorb liquid if they are immersed in it. An easy way to to incorporate these little seeds into your diet is to simply add them to your smoothies, or stir them into your oatmeal. For a creative way to eat them, try making a ‘pudding’ by letting about a tablespoon of chia seeds sit in a cup coconut milk. Chill this mixture for about 15 minutes, and you will have a tapioca-like pudding that is delicious!
Other excellent sources of omega 3s are flax oil, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans. I like to add hemp seeds to my smoothies, as they give it a sweet flavor. Hemp seeds also taste great sprinkled on steamed broccoli, and flax oil can be drizzled over any veggies, warm or cold, for an omega 3 boost. Just be sure not to heat your flax oil as this will denature it.
Trying to break down the nutritional contents of foods can be exhausting, but it is important to have a good understanding if you are new to (or experimenting with) a plant based diet, so that you can be certain you are obtaining adequate nutrition. I encourage anyone making changes in their diet to do so carefully, and under the supervision of a professional if further education is needed. However, once you learn the ropes you will see that the key to a healthy, nutrient rich diet is simply eating a wide variety of whole foods! It’s not complicated… in fact, it’s as easy as pie (vegan pie, that is)!
Lori is an animal-loving, life-loving vegan who is passionate about spreading the message of better health through a vegan diet. She works as a certified holistic health and nutrition coach, a yoga instructor, and a physical therapist. Learn more at her website Live In The Balance and follow her on Facebook.
Photo Credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/83096974@N00