Wednesday 20 May 2009

Where do you get your...iron?

Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin (Hb). Hb is the substance that makes our blood red, and transports oxygen to all parts of the body. Two-thirds of the body's iron is contained in the Hb, with the remainder stored in the liver, spleen and bone-marrow.

Insufficient Hb, resulting in insufficient oxygen supply to the body, and generally known as anaemia, can cause all sorts of problems, but the most well-known manifestations of deficiency are tiredness, breathlessness and headaches.


The RNI (Reference Nutrient Intake) for adults is 8.7 mg daily average. For menstruating women it's set at 14.8 mg. But...bear in mind that figure is set with the average woman (on a standard cooked diet) in mind. It will not apply to the majority of all-raw women, who generally bleed far less than the average (see my article on menstruation here).

Can iron be stored?

Yes, which means that we don't need to concern ourselves with iron intake within any one day - it's the intake over a period of days, or weeks, or months, that counts.

Can we have too much iron?

Yes. High levels of iron in the blood have been linked with cancer and heart attacks. And high doses of iron supplements have been linked with constipation, vomiting and diarrhoea, and can be fatal.


The following raw vegan food groups tend to be particularly high in iron: seeds, nuts, dried fruit, dark green leaves.

Here are just a few examples of foods high in iron, and I've been realistic on serving sizes. For example, you will often hear people say that parsley is high in iron. Well, yes it is, per 100g. But parsley is so light in weight that you'd have to eat five packs for it to make it onto the list below.

Pumpkin seeds, 1/2 cup, 10 mg iron
Dried apricots/peaches, 100g, 6 mg
Cashews, 1/2 cup, 5 mg
Pine kernels, 1/2 cup, 4 mg
Sunflower seeds, 1/2 cup, 4 mg
Almonds, 1/2 cup, 3 mg
Spinach, 100g, 3 mg
Sea veg (generally), 100g, 2-3 mg
Kale, 100g, 2 mg
Walnuts, 1/2 cup, 2 mg
Sprouted lentils, 1/2 cup, 2 mg
(Source: USDA Nutrient Database)

Raw fooders who eat at least some of the foods on this list regularly should have no problem in making the RNI of 8 grams, as most of the other foods eaten in a week will also be contributing to iron requirements.

High fruit diets

Fresh fruits highest in iron are berries (eg raspberries, blackberries) at 1 mg per 100g. Fruits such as bananas, mangoes, papayas and tomatoes contain on average 0.3 mg per fruit. But I know people who eat a lot of bananas! 10 bananas would give 3 mg of iron, and therefore be a significant source of iron. I have a passion for persimmons (0.6 mg) and could easily eat several. Five persimmons would yield 3 mg of iron.

So those who follow high-fruit diets, who have fruit in quantity, as 'meals', should have no problems obtaining all the iron they need, even if they eat very little of the foods in the 'high iron' list.

And, as Vitamin C helps iron absorption, high-fruit diets win all round (and, incidentally, the fact that raw fooders in general eat more Vitamin C counterbalances the claim from some that iron from animal foods is more easily absorbed than that from vegan sources).

(note - dried fruits are often said to be good for iron. Any dried food will 'appear' to score highly on nutrients, but that's simply because the water's been removed and therefore there will be more fruits per 100g, therefore more nutrients per 100g. As 'more nutrients' here is somewhat of an illusion, and dried fruit can bring its own problems, eg teeth problems, best to stick to fresh wherever possible.)

Iron antinutrients

I did start off with quite a long list of substances that some believe interfere with iron absorption. But there are so many contradictory studies that, in most cases, it wouldn't be fair to point the finger.

So, I'll stick with the 'perennials', about which there is no disagreement. They are:

Tea (including herbal tea - it's the tannins...)

(especially when drunk with meals)

I believe not, for the following reasons:

Foods typically eaten by a raw fooder over a week will contain several on the 'high-iron' list, with many other contributing foods. And those on high-fruit diets eating fewer of those foods will be eating fruit in such large quantities that iron requirements should be met easily. (I analysed my own high-fruit diet using Cronometer, and I'd exceeded the daily iron RNI.)

The raw fooder's diet will be high in Vitamin C, found in fresh fruit and vegetables, maximising the chances of iron ingested being absorbed.

Women of child-bearing age eating raw will generally bleed far less (and thus lose less iron) than women on standard cooked diets.

(Raw fooders may well have lower Hb counts than meat-eaters, but...see below.)


I'd suggest not likely, but there would be more reason for a high raw fooder than an all-raw fooder to be low on iron. The good news is that high raw fooders concerned about iron have lots of opportunies to improve their diets so that more iron is ingested and/or absorbed.

But, first, let's look at 'low on iron' more closely.

A common scenario: the happy little raw fooder, feeling hale and hearty, has a 'routine' blood test and is told they are 'low on iron'. The mouth turns down...and of course stress isn't good for health!

Iron can be measured in various ways, but the most common is the Hb count (haemoglobin concentration). In broad terms, 14 gm/dl of blood ('dl' = decilitre = 1/10 litre = 100 ml) is said to be 'average', less than 12 gm/dl is said to be 'low', and below 10 gm/dl 'anaemic'. However, I'd suggest that if iron is just a little lower than the average and there are no symptoms of deficiency, then there is probably nothing to be concerned about. Bear in mind that studies as to what is an optimum iron level will have been carried out on the population in general, which of course includes meat-eaters. Iron may well be higher in meat-eaters, but that doesn't necessarily equal good. What's 'normal' is not necessarily healthy.

For the 20 years preceding raw, I followed a cooked meat-less diet. As a blood donor several times I was told I couldn't donate due to 'low iron'. However, in all those years I had more energy and was healthier than most people I knew, and had no iron deficiency symptoms. Those who do feel 'tired'...this could be due to so many things. People who are neglecting their health in various ways, eg through overwork, not enough sleep, not enough fresh air, negative thinking...can easily feel tired. As raw fooders are more knowledgeable about nutrition than the average, it's tempting to look for the answer to problems in what we're eating, but we should also remember that as raw fooders our very good diets are the least likely to be responsible.

And some studies are suggesting that 'low' blood iron may not be such a bad thing...Cancer Prevention Research Trust UK: 'low blood iron helps protect you from cancer as well as from bacterial infections.' 'The greater the iron concentration in a person's blood, the greater risk of developing cancer', says epidemiologist Richard Stevens of the Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richmond, Wash, US.

Here's a little more on iron and whether 'normal' is healthy, from my article on health reasons for not eating meat:

John Robbins discusses meat and iron in his book 'Healthy at 100'. Paraphrasing the information in pp149-51, for many people one of the 'health' reasons they might give for eating meat is the iron in it. The iron in meat is called 'heme iron', and the iron found in plant foods is 'nonheme' iron. 'Heme iron' is certainly more easily absorbed by our bodies than nonheme iron and some people have taken this to mean that, because of this, nonheme iron is in some way inferior to heme iron. But excess iron poses dangers to health. Antioxidants are deservedly recognised for their role in preventing cancer and other illness. But iron is the opposite of an antioxidant; it is a potent oxidant. Excess iron causes the production of free radicals hich can damage cells, leading to disease.

'For example, when sufficient quantities of heme iron are present, as is likely to happen when diets contain appreciable quantities of beef, cholesterol is oxidised into a form that is more readily absorbed by the arteries, leading to increased rates of heart disease. With nonheme iron - the kind found in plants - it's a totally different story. Your body absorbs only what it needs.'

Dr Thomas T Perls (Harvard expert on longevity): 'It's possible that higher iron levels, which may have been considered 'normal' only because they are common in males, actually speed the aging process.' According to Dr Perls, lower iron levels in adults (up to a point, of course) are an advantage and that 'it may turn out that adults, and perhaps even adolescents, are speeding up their aging clocks by maintaining iron levels that are now considered 'normal', but may in fact be excessive.'

However, in the cases where Hb is very low and there are symptoms indicative of too little iron, there are several ways in which iron intake and/or absorption can be increased:

1. Increase consumption of foods particularly high in iron, as per chart above.
2. Increase consumption of fruit (sweet and non-sweet) to increase Vitamin C, which helps iron absorption.
3. Decrease consumption of tea and coffee.
4. For women - increase percentage of raw food, as all-raw women generally have lighter periods, meaning less iron lost, therefore less needs to be ingested.

And...get more sleep (sometimes more easily said than done!).

Dr Ron Cridland, MD, believes that deep sleep is crucial for iron. Dr C , in his lecture 'Energy: The Key to Health.' says that he would test people and find that they were low in iron/anaemic, but that they had normal levels of ferritin. He explained that ferretin is essentially the iron stored in the bones and that during Level 4 sleep (the stage before REM), ferretin is involved in distributing stored iron through the blood. So, with adequate levels of deep sleep his patients would recover without changing their diet or taking a supplement. (Thanks to Nick Sirpo for this.)

Should a supplement be taken?

There are many reasons for looking to food rather than supplementation to increase iron.

Natural Hygienist Dr Virginia Vetrano warns against synthetic iron: '...iron supplements have an irritating effect upon the gastrointestinal mucosa. Anything that affects the mucosa disturbs, interferes with, and impairs normal absorption and selection of natural nutrients.'

Cancer Prevention Research Trust UK Guideline 7: 'Avoid iron tablets and food with added iron.' (Did you know that iron added to food is often simply in the form of iron filings? I'm told that if cereal is put in a plastic bag, mushed up and shaken and a magnet run over it, the iron filings in the cereal will stick to the magnet.)

The taking of mineral supplements, whether synthetic or 'natural', where the mineral is ingested in isolated form rather than in correct proportions with the other minerals and vitamins present in foods, runs the risk of creating all sorts of imbalances. For example, calcium and zinc supplements have been shown to decrease iron absorption. Iron supplements themselves have in high doses been shown to decrease zinc absorption. But, when we eat a whole raw food, we can be sure that the iron in that food is there in just the right amount to work with the other minerals and vitamins in that food.

I found this from Mike Benton, a Natural Hygienist writing in the Eighties, that explains it beautifully: 'The mineral iron that is present in a cherry, for example, is readily absorbed and used by the body because the other necessary elements for the absorption of iron co-exist in the cherry or food itself. For instance, ascorbic acid aids the absorption of iron in the body by helping to convert ferric to ferrous iron. The cherry has the needed ascorbic acid present with the ferric iron compounds. If you swalled a pill that had the iron extracted from the cherry but not the accompanying ascorbic acid, then your body would simply not have the needed co-existing elements to use the iron.'

I'd suggest high-raw people concerned about iron explore every avenue possible in which iron can be increased via food rather than resorting to supplements, the use of which at least in some cases has been shown to be harmful rather than beneficial, and, at least, is controversial. For more on supplements, see my article here.

It was sad to hear someone accusing a nutrition expert recently of preferring to see her in ill-health than have her take a supplement, when he had in fact given her all the steps necessary to increase her iron naturally - steps that would have benefited her health in countless ways had she been willing to implement them.

Postscript Feb '10 - at the time of writing this article I didn't actually know my own iron level. However, I had it checked recently and, although I don't have the exact figure, was told by the doc that it's 'normal' (!).


Unknown said...

Oh my.

You've done so much research!

Been reading your blog for a year now. Am gradually changing my eating habits.

I noticed I do wake up easier when I am all raw and today I read that same thing in an article of yours, wow!

It is so great to be able to read all that info in one place, and put so eloquently.

Hope you keep writing. Thanks so much!

Mariya W.

PS - do you have sample menues posted somewhere on your site? Have you compiled a list of absolutely necessary basics one absolutely should consume over a week for ex?

I'd come to your classes but live far away from the UK.

Debbie Took said...

Hi Mariya

Many thanks for kind comments.

I don't have sample menus, but the page 'What is the Raw Food Diet?' on the main website at should help.

There isn't one food I can think of that it's absolutely necessary to consume each week. However, I can say that I don't think there's any week where I don't consume the following: bananas, apples, dates, lettuce, spinach, celery and nuts/seeds, if that helps at all. I'd say they're my staples!