Saturday, August 20, 2011

Vegetarians, Vegans, and Iron

When I went to give blood today, the gentleman who took my vitals and checked my iron levels said, "You're a vegetarian, aren't you?"

"Yes," I said. "How'd you know that?"

"I've processed you before, and I remember us talking about it," he said.

"Nice of you to remember," I said. "I like to give blood regularly because it allows me to check my iron levels just to make sure I'm getting enough iron since I don't eat meat."

"Well," he said, continuing to check my vitals, "there's a lot of them that come in here and get in trouble."

"Vegetarians and vegans, you mean?" I asked.

"Yes, sir. Either they can't pass the iron test or, if they do, then they go out there to give blood and get sick—get light-headed or nauseous," he said.

"I can't tell you how much that distresses me," I said. "The truth is, too many people who don't eat meat aren't careful about what they do eat—they don't take in enough leafy greens and other iron-bearing foods to keep their iron levels up. They want to save the animals, which is good, but then they don't take care of their own health at the same time."

In all fairness, my iron levels were just barely high enough when I last gave blood. The iron reading has to be a minimum of 12.5 to give, and mine was 12.7. I was frustrated with that, but I redoubled my efforts and today it was 14.1 (14-15 is normal).

Because heavy perspiration and physical exertion deletes iron levels, I have had to be extra conscious of iron intake over the last couple months due to my lengthy bike rides 4-5 times per week where I perspire like crazy and know I probably lose iron on every ride. But I also read something recently I had read before but had not implemented—that Vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron (and things like tea block the absorption of iron). So when I fix my daily bowl of breakfast "oatmeal" (an oatmeal-based hot cereal with eight grains plus red and white quinoa and buckwheat and blackstrap molasses—most of which carry some iron), I'll drink a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice with it to get the Vitamin C mixed with the iron. And on nights when I eat lots of spinach, kale, and other greens I'll take a 1,000 milligram Vit. C tab along with the meal.

I don't know if those combinations help with absorption, but I am happy that my iron levels were fine today.

Vegetarians and vegans who can't give blood because of having low iron give the whole program a bad name, especially when it's unnecessary. We need to do better—for our own sake but also for the sake of those who would like to eat less meat but wonder if all their nutritional needs can be met with a plant-based diet. The answer is, Yes they can—if we eat healthfully.

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