Protein and Iron are both important nutrients we all need in order to maintain our muscles and provide energy for us to live our lives. When I very first started my blog almost 2 whole years ago I started making plans for a future e-book, calorie counted meal plans designed to hit every micro and macro nutrient target. At the time I wasn’t eating a whole lot of meat and most of my recipes were vegan so naturally I started with the meal plan designed for vegans, I quickly discovered that it was going to be a lot harder to create a super healthy vegan meal plan that didn’t lack protein or Iron. I’d still like to have another go at this one day but in the mean time, here’s a guide to making sure you get enough iron and protein in your diet and a short guide to busting the social media myths.
We’ll start with iron because the requirements are easier to explain. Men and women over the age of 50 should aim to have 8mg of Iron per day in their diets however women between the ages of 18 and 50 should aim for 18mg of Iron per day. Iron helps deliver oxygen to our blood and carry it around the body, 60% of which goes to the muscles in our body. An Iron deficiency can lead to a condition called anaemia which causes low energy, shortness of breath and heart issues.
The highest sources of iron I’m sure you are aware come from animal products, with some topping the charts at 14mg per 100g. This type of Iron is called heme iron, and we typically are only able to use around 15-35% of the iron in these foods. The other type of iron is called non-heme iron. This is iron from other sources such as vegetables and pulses. A few examples of plant food highest in iron would be: red lentils with 7.6mg per 100g, Azuki Beans with around 4.2mg per 100g Tofu with 1.8mg per 100g and Spinach with 1.9mg of iron per 100g. Most beans in fact contain iron than beef when compared gram for gram however a recommended portion of beef weighs around 170g (4.6mg) whilst a recommended portion of mixed beans is 80g (1.47mg).
For example, to meet the recommended daily allowance of 18mg of iron for a woman they would need to eat:
- 3 35g portions of dried red lentils for 8.1mg
- 3 35g portions of canned beans for 4.5mg
- 3 80g portions of fresh spinach for 4.5mg
- And 2 40g portions of tofu for 1.4mg… = 18.5mg for 766kcal
That’s without considering anything else you have to eat as well to get all of the other nutrients you need to keep yourself healthy…Are you feeling like the hungry caterpillar yet because I sure am! Now’s probably not a good time to mention that, this non-heme iron isn’t digested well by our bodies and we typically only absorb 2-15% of non-heme iron, huh?
Protein is a really important macronutrient that makes up one of the three main food groups (protein, carbohydrate and fat). Its responsible for our muscle growth and health, that includes our heart and brain! It gives us long lasting, slow release energy that helps us stay focused and energised throughout the day regardless of whether we have an active or sedentary lifestyle. It also helps to keep our stomachs fuller for longer so its great for people trying to remain in a calorie deficit.
Everybody will have a different minimum protein requirement. This is worked out by weight. We should aim for 0.75g of protein per kg of body weight. So, for example, if we take an adult woman that weights 76kg (that’s 11.9st or 167lbs) she would need 57g of protein every day to meet her recommended daily allowance. Whilst this could be achieved with just 1.5 portions of meat a day, vegans can find protein from other sources. One of the most natural high protein plant foods would be legumes, dried lentils contain 25g of protein per 100g. Tofu contains 9.9g of protein per 100g whilst peanut butter contains a whopping 22.8g of protein per 100g, however, you’ll soon see why that hasn’t been listed as the highest source of vegan protein. This issue once again, much like with Iron is that the weight of portions of meat/fish/eggs you may eat vs the weight of a portion of beans, lentils or tofu for example will be wildly different in many cases. For are hypothetical example of a woman weighing 67kg to get her 57g of protein she would need to eat:
- 3 40g portions of tofu for 11.8g
- 2 50g portions of lentils for 25.8g
- 2 60g portions of cannellini beans for 9g
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for 11.4g =58g of protein for 723kcal
Once again, like with iron, that’s a lot of food just to cover one area of nutrition. There are however many processed supplements on the market to boost the protein levels for vegans. One of these is pea protein. Pea protein is extracted from split peas and often packaged for consumers in the form of protein powders used for protein shakes. Pea protein may be one of the healthier processed forms of vegan protein however once combined with other ingredients to make it taste good the result is often not so healthy and should not be used as a complete substitute for protein in my opinion. Another processed option is a brand of vegan meat alternatives called Quorn. Quorn is made out of mycoprotein however this also should not completely replace high sources such as beans and lentils due to its processed nature.
The iron and protein myths:
Over the last few years I’ve seen huge amounts of false information particularly regarding both iron and protein sources for vegans and I want to bust the myths so that you can make educated decisions towards your own health and not find yourself low on nutrition because you were lead to believe the food you are eating is healthier than it really is. Below in a gallery are some of these myths. The premise for these statements is true, gram for gram some plant based foods are as good as or higher as their meaty counterparts but the context is entirely different. Like I mentioned above when talking about iron, you would have to eat much more in terms of quantity and volume of food in order to get the same levels of iron and protein that you would get from eating animal products.
Take the picture explaining the levels of iron in both spinach and meat. It explains that to get the RDA for iron (18mg for female) you need to eat 2lbs (907g) of beef which is true. That’s also a huge amount of steak to eat, roughly 4 portions, and shouldn’t be recommended although its not an impossible quantity to eat for the sake of argument, over the course of a day. Its also suggesting that you can get the same requirement of iron from 1.5lbs of spinach. This is also true. 1.5lbs of spinach does contain the iron RDA however, 1.5lbs of spinach in volume is much, much more than the steak. This would be roughly 8 portions of spinach. Honestly, I wouldn’t like to try to eat 8 salads in one day. Similarly, the steak vs. broccoli picture doesn’t account for the fact that 150kcal of steak is about 1/4 of a portion whilst 150kcal of broccoli is 3-4 full heads or 4-6 portions. Please be careful with trusting what you read on social media, do your own research first.
So what’s the conclusion?
Its totally possible to get enough iron and protein whilst being vegan, however, lots of research on nutrition and careful meal planning will be necessary. Its also likely that you may need to increase physical activity in order to balance out the higher calorie intake that may be likely if your eating that huge list of legumes and tofu above.
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