Bioavailability Matters: The Plant-Based Guide to Quickly Boosting Your Iron Levels
Updated: Jan 31
'It’s not just about the quantity, it’s about how much the body absorbs'
I get asked about how to maintain healthy iron levels all the time, so I thought I’d share some of the tips I give to clients who are looking to boost and maintain their levels.
Molasses is a by-product of sugar production. While not the highest food source of iron (4.9mg/100g), molasses is probably one of the best and most well tolerated forms that I’ve come across. Iron is a heavy mineral and so the body can struggle to process it in large amounts. This is why many people do better on food-sources of iron than with large ferritin based supplements. Molasses also has the added benefit of a broad spectrum of other nutrients such as B6, selenium and magnesium which further aid the absorption of iron in the body. Start by taking 1 tbsp of organic, unsulphured molasses dissolved in hot water every morning or if you enjoy the taste, you could try adding it to porridge or a smoothie. I like it spread on an oatcake with some almond butter – yum!
Spirulina is a blue-green algae renowned for its abundance of nutrients. Just 28g provides half of your daily iron requirements! It’s also a rich source of amino acids (protein) and vitamins B, C, D and E. Add the powder to a smoothie or energy ball recipe – or if that’s not your thing, try the tablet form (taken with a meal). Always go for a high-quality spirulina (ideally organic) as this algae is known to absorb toxins from its environment – which is part of what makes it such a healthful food!
Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
Legumes are a nutrition powerhouse and have been a staple in the diet for thousands of years! While they contain varying levels of iron, they’re all beneficial to your health. Try increasing your intake of lentils, kidney, black, pinot and soy (as tofu or tempeh) beans in particular. Always soak your legumes overnight before cooking or buy tinned beans from a company that follows this process – I like Biona, Annie’s and Merchant’s Gourmet!
While many may know tahini as ‘that thing that’s in hummus’, it is actually a hugely versatile and tasty ingredient. Made by grinding sesame seeds into a paste, it not only contains a noteworthy amount of iron, but it is super rich in calcium too! Try using it instead of nut butter or adding to stir-fries, sauces, salad dressings and of course, hummus!!
Nuts and Seeds
As with legumes, nuts and seeds have been part of the human diet for millennia and hold a very impressive nutrient profile. Pistachio nuts reign supreme in terms of their iron content, with cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds not too far behind. Try to make a habit of grabbing a handful of nuts and seeds instead of your usual snack or add to porridge, granola or yogurt for a nutritious breakfast.
Vegetables (especially dark leafy greens and beetroot!)
We should all be eating a large variety of fresh vegetables daily to support our health, vitality and longevity. In fact, this is one food group where your intake can be unlimited – the more the better! To boost iron levels, think lightly cooked dark green vegetables in particular such as spinach, broccoli and kale. Other great options are beetroot, artichoke, mushrooms, dried apricots and raisins (yes, these are fruits, but its easy to slip them in here).
Secrets to Super Boosting Absorption
Try to eat the above iron-rich foods in combination with a source of vitamin C as this will aid the absorption of iron in the body. Including fresh, raw fruits and vegetables in your diet is an easy way to do this. Why not start your day with a smoothie or add a handful of berries to your porridge?
Avoid drinking tea and coffee with your meals as they contain a compound called tannins which can block iron absorption.
Always soak legumes in lemon water overnight before cooking in order to release any acids which may interfere with iron absorption.
Don’t forget to cook your veggies. While raw vegetables have plenty of vitamin C, cooking vegetables improves the availability of iron, making it easier for the body to absorb.
When to Supplement?
If you’re starting with below optimal levels of iron, then you may need to consider supplementation along with the foods above. In general, my preference is for food-based iron supplements as these tend to be better tolerated. If I need to get a clients iron levels up quickly, then I will often put them on a routine of 1-2 tbsp organic blackstrap molasses along with a food-based iron supplement for a few weeks until their levels return to normal. With that said, there are several reasons why someone might have low iron levels; it’s not always just about dietary lack. As such, if this is a long-standing issue for you, then I highly recommend working with a Nutritional Therapist or Functional Medicine Practitioner who can personalise the approach.