How to increase iron absorption on a plant-based diet

foods that inhibit iron absorptionThere are several ways to ensure adequate iron intake but in addition to consuming iron-rich foods, there are certain foods you should avoid for maximum success.

Ways to ensure adequate iron intake:

  • Eat plenty of iron containing foods.

    These include dark leafy greens, beans, quinoa, oats, or soaked almonds or pumpkin seeds.

  • Enhance iron absorption by employing the “iron and acid” combination. Acids can increase absorption by as much as 40-60%!

    Acids include:

    1. Your own stomach acid.
    2. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Squeeze lemon juice over greens, or add vitamin C foods like bell peppers, cucumbers, or celery to your iron-rich salads or meals.
    3. Lactic acid. Include sour kraut or fermented veggies when iron-rich greens or legumes are served.
    4. Acetic acid (vinegar). Use vinegars on salads, greens, etc.

    NOTE: The acid-containing foods should be eaten at the same time as the iron-containing foods. Also,

  • Reduce inhibitors of absorption.

    The most common inhibitors are phytates (a carbohydrate in whole grains and legumes,) calcium in dairy products, and polyphenols such as tannic acid in tea, coffee, etc.

    To reduce phytate inhibition of iron absorption:

    Soaking, sprouting, leavening and fermenting whole grains break down phytates and thus will increase iron absorption

    Acidic substances specifically reduce phytates, so adding citrus (lemon juice, orange slices, etc. for vitamin C,) vinegar, and other acids to meals with legumes and whole grains significantly decreases inhibition of iron absorption.

To reduce polyphenol inhibition of iron absorption (tannins and flavonoids in tea, coffee, cocoa, red wine) – avoid consuming these beverages with iron-containing foods.

To reduce calcium inhibition of iron absorption

The effect of soy products on iron absorption is controversial. Some studies report an inhibitory effect, others do not. However, it is agreed that fermented soy products like tempeh and miso increase iron absorption.

Despite common beliefs, it appears that leafy greens and other foods containing oxalic acid do not seem to significantly inhibit iron absorption.  If oxalates are a factor, their effects will be minimized by cooking and/or by serving the greens with acidic toppings and complements.

  • Avoid chronic use of “acid blockers”, like Zantac, Pepsid, etc. Occasional use is safe.
  • All foods in the vegan diet, whether raw or cooked, should be chewed thoroughly to break down the cell walls. That allows maximal absorption of their minerals, including iron.
So, the take away is anyone eating lots of salads with some citrus or vinegar-containing dressing, or who snacks on soaked almonds or brazil nuts, and who avoids drinking coffee, milk, or “black” tea with their meals should not have to worry about their iron absorption.


But if there is any question, have a blood test done and see if there is any need to change your diet to optimize your iron levels.


Iron: plant vs. animal

plant sources of ironIron builds the hemoglobin molecule that carries oxygen to all your body’s cells.


Sources of Iron.      Iron comes in two forms – heme iron from animal foods and non-heme iron, from plant foods.


Heme iron is purported to be more bioavailable than non-heme iron. Studies have shown that approximately 15-35% of heme iron is utilized by the body versus only 10-20% for non-heme iron.

However, animal foods carry a lot of baggage, such as saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics, all of which increase your risk for chronic diseases.And heme iron has been shown to increase your risk for colon cancer. Not so for non-heme iron.

Common plant food sources of iron include:

  • legumes
  • vegetables: especially leafy greens
  • nuts and seeds
  • whole grains

The most common symptoms of iron deficiency include: anemia, headache, irritability, and in more severe cases, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and weight loss.

But, don’t just rely on regular supplementation, because more is not always better.

Too much iron can increase oxidation in tissues, which promotes aging, and tissue damage to your heart, liver and pancreas.

In next week’s post I will show you how to increase iron absorption using some simple dietary “tricks”




Is Roundup to blame for gluten intolerance?

The use of Roundup, a glyphosate herbicide, has increase exponentially over the past twenty years. Monsanto, its manufacturer, has consistently held that the product is safe and in fact, went on the air with one of its senior managers to claim that it could be consumed straight from the bottle with no adverse effects. (When the manager was asked to demonstrate that “fact”, he promptly walked off the set.)

So the question remains: is Roundup safe and what effect, if any, has it had on human health over its lifespan.

This is a fascinating study from the Interdisciplinary Journal of Toxicology that was published in 2013. The two U.S. scientists argue that increased use of Monsanto’s  Roundup could be the cause of the epidemic of symptoms labeled as “gluten intolerance.”

Interestingly, the scientists observed that fish exposed to Roundup (glyphosate) developed digestive problems that mimic gluten intolerance.  Celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, is known to impair an enzyme that is crucial for detoxifying environmental toxins, activating Vitamin D and catabolizing Vitamin A, among other things and, likewise, Roundup exposure has been shown to impair that same enzyme. There are other similarities too. Certain specific amino acid and mineral deficiencies occur in both Roundup exposure and symptoms related to Celiac, or gluten intolerance.  And to further their observations, check out this graph that tracks use of Roundup with cases of Celiac/gluten intolerance from 1990-2010. Coincidence??

Roundup on Gluten Intolerance

So maybe it’s not the grains we should be avoiding but the herbicides that coat them. After all, we have been eating grains as a species for over 20,000 years.


Gluten: what’s the big deal

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley (lesser known grains: farro, spelt, kamut, semolina and einkorn also contain gluten). It’s made up of two strands of protein called glutenin and gliadin.

When gluten containing grains are mixed with water these protein strands unwind and form gluten. This is what makes bread strong, elastic and “doughy”. Gluten can be difficult to digest, in part, because of its “stickiness” but for people who suffer from gluten sensitivity symptoms can include: headache, fatigue, abdominal  pain and bloating, joint pain, skin rash and tingling or numbness in legs.

In addition to bread and all the other products that contain wheat, barley and rye, many processed foods contain gluten including:

  • modified food starch
  • soy sauce
  • soups
  • ramen noodles
  • prepared rice mixes
  • candy
  • breadcrumbs

just to name a few.

Some great alternatives include:

  • millet, amaranth, quinoa grains
  • crackers made with flax, chia or hemp seeds
  • buckwheat flour
  • brown rice and rice flour
  • bulgur
  • corn and polenta
  • nut and chickpea flours
  • oats and oat flours
  • rice, coconut and oat flours
  • tamari and coconut aminos (instead of soy sauce)

Gluten is found in the seeds not the grass, so don’t be afraid of wheatgrass!

Today, there are many food companies that specialize in gluten free items but always read the labels. Gluten-free doesn’t always equal “healthy”.


B12–the vitamin you need to thrive on a plant-based diet

B12 vitaminVitamin B12 is mainly found only in animal foods so for plant-based eaters, you need to take a high quality supplement regularly. Why?

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin needed for DNA synthesis. It’s critical in red blood cell formation in your bone marrow. And it helps nerve fibers perform in your brain, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system.

With a deficiency of B-12, cells will not develop properly. You can become anemic and suffer from spinal cord and nerve damage.

B-12 is also required to convert the amino acid homocysteine into methionine. Homocysteine is a byproduct of your digestive system. If you have a B-12 deficiency, homocysteine can build up to toxic levels in your bloodstream, damaging your arteries and leading to atherosclerosis.

Not to be Debbie Downer, but advanced B-12 deficiency can be serious and in the most severe cases may lead to paralysis, dementia and even death.

You may be asking yourself: if a plant-based diet are the way to go, why would it  be deficient in any nutrients? Good question. The answer: Vitamin B-12 comes from microorganisms… mostly bacteria that live in soil, water, and the digestive tracts of animals.

Hundreds of years ago, people could get B-12 by drinking from mountain runoff or streams. Or by working in gardens and then eating without washing their hands thoroughly. Since we no longer do these things, plant-based sources of Vitamin B-12 have been eliminated from modern life.

It’s true that there are bacteria in the human gut that synthesize B-12 but they don’t live in the part of the intestine where B-12 is absorbed. So your best bet is taking a regular supplement.

How much do we need?

According to Dr. Michael Klaper,

Only a small amount of the B-12 you swallow is actually absorbed. So he recommends a daily intake of…

    1. 5 mcg daily from fortified food like cereal, rice milk, and soy milk AND
    2. 100 mcg from a daily supplement, preferably chewed to increase absorption OR
    3. 2000 mcg from a weekly supplement to keep your B-12 level in the safe range.


Omega3’s–Essential Fatty Acids

Power seedsThe human body can make most types of fat that it needs but there are 2 fatty acids that we can’t make called “essential” fatty acids: one is an omega 3 FA called alpha-lenolenic acid (ALA) and the other is an omega 6 FA called linoleic acid (LA). Since we cannot make these ourselves, we must get them from food.

While it’s not so hard to get LA and ALA from foods, such as seeds, nuts, leafy greens and plant oils, it’s really the derivatives of  ALA (Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid DHA) that most benefit the human body.

The problem is ALA does not break down into these derivatives easily and plant foods (with the exception of algae) don’t contain them. EPA and DHA, on their own, are primarily found in fish.

Why do we care about EPA and DHA?

EPA and DHA are critical to your overall health.

EPA and DHA make up your cell membranes, and are especially abundant in your brain and nervous system. They enhance intracellular signaling between cells and regulate your gene expression.

EPA and DHA are the building blocks for a wide variety of hormone-like compounds, including eicosanoids (prostaglandins, prostacyclins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes), protectins, and resolvins.

These hormone-like substances regulate blood clotting, blood pressure, immune response, cell division, pain control, and inflammation response.

As if that wasn’t enough, they also play a major role in the prevention of several diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, diabetes, and some cancers. Some studies suggest that they may also protect you from dementia.

Best sources of ALA are flax, chia, hemp seeds and walnuts. To maximize conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA,

  • Don’t eat too many foods containing high levels of Omega 6 FA’s like sunflower or safflower oils. A high intake of omega-6 fatty acids can reduce conversion by as much as 40 to 60%. Trans fatty acids can also reduce conversion, as well as excess alcohol and caffeine.
  • Make sure you are not suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Nutritional deficiencies in vitamin and minerals that work as co-factors to convert the ALA – especially zinc, magnesium, niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and vitamin C– will slow the conversion.
  • Restrict your calories by eating a low-fat diet. Low-fat or calorie-restricted diets appear to enhance conversion, while fasting slows it down.
  • And finally these oils: echium oil, hempseed oil, and black current oil are the only plant sources of stearidonic acid (SDA), the FA that converts more easily into EPA and DHA.

If you want a direct source, consume microalgaes, like spirulina, that contain EPA and DHA.



Soy and Your Hormones

hormonesSoy is one of the most significant sources of isoflavones in our diet. Isoflavones are phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) that belong to a family of phytochemicals called polyphenols. Many of the health benefits of soy (other than its macro and micronutrient contributions), are due to these plant estrogens. The plant estrogens seem to have a positive effect on postmenopausal women by enhancing heart health and brain function.         .


However, these plant estrogens have garnered much controversy. A commonly held belief is that isoflavones are beneficial for those who need estrogen (e.g. menopausal women), but detrimental for those who don’t  (e.g. women with certain types of breast cancer and men who believe they can be “feminized” by estrogen).

This is not entirely true because isoflavones are not the same as human estrogen.

Isoflavones only have weak estrogenic effects in postmenopausal women. On the other hand, isoflavones appear to act as an anti-estrogen where breast cancer risk is concerned. That’s good news.

To sum up, while the effects of soy tend to be favorable for women, men are frequently concerned that soy may reduce testosterone levels, and generally cause a feminizing effect. Only two case studies have appeared in the literature regarding feminization of men ingesting soy.

In both cases, the men regularly consumed 14 to 20 servings of soy daily – one derived almost all of his calories from soy – and subsequently developed health problems, such as enlarged breast tissue and loss of libido. In both cases, when soy intake was reduced, their health and libido returned to normal.

My Top 7 Picks for Plant Protein


My top favorite picks for plant protein are:

1. Quinoa: 11g protein/cup

A pseudograin that serves as a great high protein breakfast cereal when combined with some almond or other nut milk and berries. It’s also is a great base (instead of standard rice or other grain) that you can easily toss with veggies or beans for a hearty dinner.

RECIPE: Quinoa Black Bean Bowl: just remember to substitute vegan butter for the traditional stuff.

2. Lentils: 18g protein/cup

A yummy, flavorful bean that I use as a base for veggie burgers, soups, and stews. Try this recipe. You will love it!

RECIPE: Lentil Burgers

3. Black Beans: 15g protein/cup

Who doesn’t love rice and beans? Add onions, garlic and peppers and you are all set. Use them in chilis, stews, soups, as a base for veggie burgers. Limitless potential. I even use them for pizza crusts!

RECIPE: Cilantro Lime and Black Bean Rice

4. Tempeh: 41g protein/cup

Tempeh is a great fermented soy product that you can season with any spices you want for a flavorful, meaty texture. Turn it into reuben sandwich, bacon for your BLTs or craft it into delicious meatballs.

RECIPE: Best Vegan Tempeh Reubens

5. Spirulina: [6g protein/tsp]

The highest source of protein of any food on the planet. This blue-green algae is a complete protein that you can easily add to shakes, smoothies and juices for a high quality protein punch.

RECIPE:Rich Roll’s Deep Blue Sea Blend Smoothie

6. Seitan: 31g protein/3 oz serving

Also known as wheat gluten, seitan has the texture of meat and is excellent source of protein. You can make your own seitan (it’s not that hard) or try Gardein’s chick’n cutlets, burgers and meatloaf. Or Field Roast’s chik’n apple sausage links. Love them!

RECIPE: Seitan Gyros

7. Chickpeas: 12g protein/cup

Have you ever had “untuna salad” made from chickpeas? Unbelievable! Chickpeas are so versatile. Make your own hummus, use them in a salad, create an “un”-tuna salad or if you prefer, use chickpea flour to make everything from omelettes to pizza crusts.

RECIPE: Chickpea “Un-Tuna” Salad


Benefits of Soy

 soy-foods pic
There are many health benefits associated with consuming soy. For example, soy has been shown to
  • lower your risk of cardiovascular disease,
  • protect against some types of cancer
  • balance hormones to reduce hot flashes, and
  • protect against osteoporosis.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) – Scientific studies suggest that soy foods reduce your risk of heart attacks. A 2011 study estimated that an average intake of 30 grams of soy protein per day was associated with a reduction in LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) of about 5%. Soy intake also increased HDL cholesterol (the good kind) levels and reduced triglycerides.
Scientific research also suggests that soy consumption reduces the thickness of coronary arteries; when your arteries are thicker, CVD risk is elevated.
Reduced Risk of Breast and Prostate Cancer – Scientific studies further suggest that soy intake reduces risk of prostate and breast cancer.
Prostate Cancer. Asian men who consume about two servings of soy foods per day are about 30 -50% less likely to develop prostate cancer than Asian men who do not consume soy. Further, prostate cancer is significantly lower in Asian populations, compared to North American or European populations. But when Asian men relocate to America and adopt Western diets, they quickly assume the same risk for contracting prostate cancer as others who eat the rich Western diet
Breast Cancer. For years, doctors warned breast cancer patients to avoid soy products due to concerns that soy phytoestrogens would act like human estrogen and increase cancer cell growth. However, recent studies suggests that isoflavones act more as anti-estrogens than human estrogen in reproductive cells (e.g. breast and uterus tissue), improving breast cancer prognosis. Furthermore, many studies have supported the benefits of soy in reducing risk of breast cancer and to highlight just one, a recent study reported those subjects who with the  BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (genes that increase breast cancer risk) who measured in the top 25% of soy intake in the group were associated with a 61% reduced risk of breast cancer; while subjects with the same gene who measured in the top 25% of meat intake had almost double the risk of breast cancer.
Balancing Hormones/Reduction in Hot Flashes – It has long been suspected that soy reduces hot flashes in women and while the evidence is not overwhelming, based on 2012 studies, the study suggests that soy, in the form of isoflavone supplements, reduces hot flash frequency by 21% and their severity by 26%. To date, the evidence is stronger for isoflavone supplements over soy foods for the greatest benefit.
Possible Protection Against Osteoporosis – There is some scientific evidence that consumption of soy foods is protective against bone fractures. In one study scientists reported a 5.8% improvement of bone mineral density in postmenopausal osteopenic women who were given 54 mg genistein per day (about four servings of soy), compared to a 6.3% decrease of bone mineral density in the placebo group.
Soy products can contribute nutritional health at any age.

The Most Healthful Soy Foods

soy stock photoSoy foods fall into two categories: fermented (e.g. tempeh, miso and natto) and non-fermented (e. g. tofu, soymilk, edamame soybeans and soy nuts).  Despite their health benefits, sometimes soy gets a bad wrap. And here’s why:
Soy contains two anti-nutrients that are common among legume family: phytates and lectins.  Phytates can interfere with the absorption of certain minerals and lectins can bind to the lining of your intestines and cause intestinal wall damage, but the negative effects of these anti-nutrients can be largely eliminated through the process of soaking, fermenting or cooking.
These preparation methods for both non-fermented products – such as soy milk and tofu –and fermented soy products such as tempeh, not only reduce anti-nutrients but also improve digestibility and mineral absorption.
But the fermentation process has an additional benefit too; it helps to support beneficial gut flora. That is, it helps populate the gut with beneficial bacteria that assist with everything from your immune system to mental health.
On the other hand, highly processed soy products, like veggie meats, sausages, deli slices and protein powders and bars, are sometimes made from a concentrated form of soy protein called “soy protein isolate” that is not easily digested and many times can be contaminated with hexane, a toxic solvent which is used to extract the protein from the soy.  You can avoid soy protein that has been processed using hexane by purchasing certified organic products, but I would keep these soy products to a minimum.
Some of the soy cheeses contain partially-hydrogenated oils (trans fats) and trans fats should always be avoided.
See my post on Soy and Your Hormones for  more information about how soy can affect your hormones.