Caffeine and calcium inhibit the absorption of iron...
The simple fact that iron is available in Spinach and meat, led me to wonder why, in a country where these foods are readily available, I am meeting women who are iron deficient. Some of whom were eating plenty of meat or greens. I did some research and found that caffeine inhibits iron absorption from leafy greens, such as spinach (non-haem iron) as does calcium. So if we have spinach at breakfast with a coffee, or a spinach & feta pie for dinner, then we aren't letting the spinach do it's job! I was also taking various Iron & B supplements and was keen to find out more.
Haem iron, from meat, is more easily absorbed and thus not so affected by caffeine. Calcium however blocks absorption of iron from both meat and vegetables. Dairy forms a large part of the Australian diet, so there could be many women out there, who are iron deficient, simply because they are eating the wrong combination of food. The good news is, that Vitamin C assists with iron absorption and negates the effects of eating iron rich foods with calcium or caffeine. I'm currently researching this further. Is it possible that too much meat or other animals products could inhibit the absorption the other essential nutrients from vegetables etc??
So, if caffeine blocks the absorption of iron from spinach and if calcium blocks the absorption of iron from spinach and meat, it poses the question: What other food combinations exist, which may be stopping a person from reaping all the nutritional benefits from the food they are eating?? Is it possible that the taking of supplements could actually be detrimental to nutrient balance?
I'll blog more on this later.
Let's back-track here...
A vegetarian for 30 years, I struggled with low iron after having children. 20 years ago, around the time of having children the doctor advised me that my iron was low. I didn't really think about the impact of low iron and didn't believe in supplements. This was before we had the internet, so I couldn't just google it! I struggled for years with vagueness, inability to think clearly and poor emotional resilience. (I kept fit though, which probably helped me cope). I attempted to improve my iron levels with food. Eventually, I concluded that iron supplements (along with zinc & B12 ) were needed. I believed that my diet was healthy and there was nothing more I could eat to improve iron levels. I started taking FAB (iron & B) supplements, which worked well. I felt much better, however, felt irked that I hadn't investigated what low iron would mean to me and what more I could be doing to increase it. I also struggled with the amounts to take which led to some stomach issues. Relying on supplements still didn't feel right.
Until recently, my daily diet typically included the following: cereal (+ nuts & fruit occasionally), eggs+toast, a cheese and lettuce sandwich on wholemeal bread, a piece of fruit, crackers and cheese , plus a spinach quiche with salad or peas. Snacks included natural yoghurt & was getting into kombucha, so thought it was healthy diet. Also included were 2-3 coffees & 5 cups of tea.
Three things made me re-think the taking supplements and look at ways to improve my diet:
1. I had lunch with a French friend and enjoyed learning more about the French diet. One thing stood out to me, as I looked at the enormous, freshly picked salad, which took centre stage on the table; the greens come first. She explained to me that the French diet includes a wide variety of vegetables and herbs, and meals nearly always start with soup or salad. The typical Australian meal regularly involves meat /protein or carbs as the main act, with salad & veg often being an optional extra "side salad". Although I kind of knew this stuff in theory, sharing in the making of this generous salad I could easily be eating more leafy greens. There are plenty in the veggie patch!
2. Seven years living on a farm, growing Aloe Vera & food ,learning about nutrition and gut health fed my interest in good health. I often had people come and share stories about how simply eating humble vegetables had cured, or significantly improved their health issue.
3. The vegan movement gained momentum. I became further interested in nutrition from plants based diets. I was also meeting some undernourished teenage girls who were living off fruit & pasta. I was researching the best way for nutrients to be derived from a vegan diet and stumbled across this simple fact about caffeine & non-haem iron.
I found that altering my diet has been easy. Adding more veggies, leafy greens, salads, nuts, legumes, seeds and combining with vitamin C and herbal teas has led to increased, sustained energy, more emotional resilience, stronger nails and a significant reduction in the supplements. Only two iron/B supplements are needed now, instead of around 20-30 a month! Interestingly, it has naturally led to a diet with less wheat carbs and less caffeine, adding vegetables to nearly every meal & making them the base of snacks (tricks such as having a box of chopped up veg, fruit & nuts en route in the car decreases the desire to seek out empty snacks as soon as you arrive!). Half an avocado, eaten straight out of the skin is so easy. Adding salad or green veg to 2 meals a day, including baby spinach in salads, dinners and smoothies. A variety of food combos and times to include the leafy greens are good to increase aborption I was already on track to improving gut health, with the inclusion of soaked & fermented foods (another blog to come!). I've recently added more nuts, beans and seeds and tofu, plus swapped pasta for sweet potato. Nuts and seeds are easy to incorporate; on salads, on breakfast cereal or in yoghurt.
I've been feeling fabulous, with better slow release energy and less cravings for nutritionally empty snacks.
Remember, adding more veggies is good for everyone and the key thing here... have vitamin C with your spinach and swap some of the caffeine drinks for herbal teas. Vitamin C is water soluble and doesn't last long in the body, so add Vit C rich foods to meals throughout the day, especially if you have a non meat diet. Include some raw veggies, since Vitamin C is destroyed when cooked.