Tag Archives: Vegetarianism

Iron, Anemia and Vegetarianism

nci-vol-3696-150Illustration: Creator: Donald Bliss (Illustrator) Source: National Cancer Institute

Probably the biggest concern people have about trying vegetarian meals in their diet, after being concerned about getting enough protein, is concern about getting enough iron. Women are especially concerned about getting enough iron. I met a young lady once who told me she had tried to be a vegetarian and ate lots of dark, green leafy vegetables but she became anemic. She then went back to eating meat. In fact dark, green leafy vegetables, although a good source of iron, have been highly overrated when it comes to the amount of iron they have. Although I would never recommend to people not to eat meat at all the fact is that the average American gets twice the amount of protein that they need in a day which is very bad for their health. There are, also, many concerns about the quality of meat that is sold. There are concerns about toxins, excess fat and cruelty to animals. Certainly eating less meat and only buying meat of better quality that is healthier is a good idea. Also, I am concerned for those people who really are on an all vegetarian diet. In fact however the usability of the iron in a person’s diet has to do with other nutrients that the body needs to be able to use the iron. With the right knowledge there is no reason why a person who is a strict vegetarian should suffer from iron deficiency.

Iron serves many functions in the body but one of the most important is in having healthy hemoglobin in the red blood cells for the blood to carry oxygen. Iron is necessary for producing enzymes and is necessary for growth. Iron is necessary for a healthy immune system and energy production.

Anemia is a condition in which there is either an insufficient amount of red blood cells or an insufficient amount of hemoglobin in the red blood cells.   In either case this causes a lack of the proper amount of oxygen being delivered to the cells of the body for the cells to carry out their necessary functions. The deficiency of oxygen to the cells of the body can result in fatigue, impairment of muscular activity, and impairment of cell growth and repair. An inadequate supply of oxygen to the brain can result in dizziness and mental impairment.

Anemia is not an illness but a symptom of an illness. Anemia can be caused by other factors than iron deficiency. Anemia can be caused by thyroid disorders, hormonal disorders, liver damage or bone marrow disease. Anemia may be the first sign of arthritis, infection or a major illness such as cancer. Women may suffer from iron-deficiency caused anemia due to heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding. Intrauterine devices for contraception can cause excess bleeding. Overuse of aspirin or ibuprofen can cause blood loss in the digestive tract. First signs of anemia may include loss of appetite, constipation, headaches, irritability and loss of concentration. In advanced stages there can be depression, pallor, pale and brittle nails, and soreness in the mouth.

PF2422_erythrocytes_fImage from National Science Foundation

To avoid iron deficiency a person has to have the support of other nutrients in order for the body to be able to utilize the iron. These include vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid. Being deficient with any of these nutrients can cause anemia.

Vitamin B6 is a part of more functions of the body than any nutrient and is essential for healthy red blood cells. Fortunately nature is so wonderful in that vitamin B6 is in most foods. Vitamin B6 is more plentiful in brewer’s yeast, carrots, peas, spinach, sunflower seeds, walnuts and whole grains such as brown rice. For herbs vitamin B6 is plentiful in alfalfa and oat straw. Too high of dosages of vitamin B6 supplements can be very harmful to a person’s health.

Vitamin B12 is absolutely necessary for proper cell growth as well. It is necessary to help folic acid in the formation of red blood cells and for the utilization of iron. However in a strict vegetarian diet many plant based foods do not have vitamin B12. The body can store vitamin B12 so a person may not feel the effects of the deficiency for years. Vitamin B12 can be found in brewer’s yeast, sea weed such as dulse, kelp, nori and kombu, and in soy beans and cultured soy bean products such as tofu and miso. For herbs it is in alfalfa and hops. Certain medications and potassium supplements may block the absorption of vitamin B12. The most common form of vitamin B12 supplements which is cyanocobalamin is very ineffective and potentially harmful because it is very unusable to the body. The better vitamin B12 supplement which is more expensive and more difficult to find is methylcobalamin.

Folic acid, also known as folate, is essential for the body to use genetic information to produce the different kinds of cells of the body. This is why it is so important for those having a child. Folic acid is necessary for energy production and the formation of red and white blood cells. Folic acid is more effective with vitamin C and vitamin B12. Folic acid deficiency can be caused by a lack of fresh vegetables and fruit in the diet because over cooking and microwaving food destroys folic acid. Among the best sources of folic acid are asparagus, brewer’s yeast, brown rice, cheese, milk, lentils, split peas, mushrooms, oranges, root vegetables, salmon, tuna and green, leafy vegetables such as lettuce.

Foods rich in natural iron include dried apricots, blackstrap molasses, dried beans and peas, soy beans, and prune juice. Herbs rich in nutrients to help build up the blood include alfalfa, dong quai, burdock root, golden seal, pau d’arco, red raspberry leaf, kelp and slippery elm.

14421_loresPhoto from cdc.gov

Malabsorption may be a reason that a person may be getting sufficient iron in the diet and yet may be suffering from iron deficiency. There has to be enough hydrochloric acid in the stomach to digest iron. However if the stomach is producing enough hydrochloric acid do not use hydrochloric acid supplements or it could cause the stomach to not produce enough hydrochloric acid naturally. Intestines clogged up with too much white, processed wheat flour or too much bacteria can cause malabsorption. Excess meat consumption can cause too much bad bacteria growth. Proper PH balance is important. The body needs the proper balance of acidity and alkalinity. For alkaline a person may want to use organic, whole leaf wheat grass powder. To reduce the amount of bacteria in the intestines a person can drink kombucha, a tasty fermented drink, or try acidophilus. These are known as probiotics. The culture in yogurt, also, helps to kill bad bacteria. Getting fiber in the diet by eating whole grains will keep the intestines clean and working healthy. Brown rice has three times the amount of fiber as white rice and twice the amount of iron. Malabsorption, also, can cause vitamin B12 deficiency.

Among the nutrients that are needed for the body to be able to use iron are copper, manganese, molybdenum, vitamin A and vitamin B-complex. Copper, manganese and molybdenum can be found in natural brewer’s yeast as well as two important B vitamins and about 50% of the iron a person needs in a day. A person should not use iron supplements unless it is necessary. If a person uses iron supplements he should use an organic form such as ferrous gluconate or ferrous fumarate. Do not use ferrous sulfate. Do not take vitamin E supplements at the same time as iron supplements or foods that contain iron. Taking calcium supplements can inhibit the absorption of iron and should not be taken when consuming foods containing iron.

The body needs vitamins C and E present in the stomach to use iron. Vitamin E is found in avocados; cold pressed vegetable oils such as olive oil, soy bean oil and canola oil; dark green, leafy vegetables; legumes; nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts; seeds and whole grains. There are significant amounts in brown rice, wheat, corn meal, oatmeal, soy beans and sweet potatoes. Herbs that contain vitamin E include alfalfa, dandelion, dong quai, flax seed, oat straw and red raspberry leaf.

Although it is known that many natural foods are good sources of iron it may be difficult to know if someone is getting enough iron. Consider that shiitake mushrooms have a lot of iron in one serving. I have heard estimates between 30% to 60% of the amount a person needs in a day. Of course this depends on the size of the serving and the shiitake mushrooms used. Shiitake mushrooms have to be cooked to be digestible and are delicious in recipes but not tasty on their own. In Chinese restaurants they are known as black mushrooms. Black fungus is reported to have anywhere between 300% to 500% of the iron a person needs in a day in one serving. Black fungus does not have much taste to it but is used in stir fries and Oriental soups. Dried black fungus can be found in Oriental markets.

Red raspberry leaf is an herb that I have been enjoying as an organic herb tea for a long time. I have always known that it is good for the immune system. It is known to have a taste similar to that of fine black tea. This makes it a good substitute for tea that has caffeine. It is great for enjoying a refreshing tea that tastes like fine black tea but does not have caffeine. It has no harmful side effects so I drink lots of it with no worries and I know it is good for my health. As time has gone by I have become aware that red raspberry leaf tea is known to be especially good for women. For a long time I did not know the reason why but I came to understand that it is known as moon cycle tea. Red raspberry leaf, sometimes just known as raspberry leaf, contains fragarine which relaxes the pelvic and uterine muscles. It contains tannins which relieve nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Red raspberry leaf tea is good for pregnancy, childbirth and breast feeding. Red raspberry leaf helps to relieve menstrual cramps and pain. Red raspberry leaf reduces hemorrhaging and pain during childbirth. It is a good source of iron and vitamin E.  Red raspberry leaf is rich in calcium and contains vitamins A, C, D, F, G and vitamin B-complex. For men red raspberry leaf is good for the prostate.

Too much iron can be very harmful to a person’s health. This is because iron is stored in the body. Too much iron in the tissues and organs causes an increase in free radicals. Too much iron contributes to heart disease and cancer. Never take iron supplements with a cold, flu or other infection. This feeds the viruses and harmful germs to help them multiply.

To test for anemia a doctor can conduct a complete blood count or CBC test to test for red blood cell count and hemoglobin level. If a person has sufficient iron but is anemic a doctor can then test for inflammation.

Vitamin E from natural foods is much safer and reliable than vitamin E supplements. Some vitamin E supplements are not very useable to the body.


If you are interested in Red Raspberry Leaf Tea try: Starwest Botanicals







Understanding Protein and Amino Acids: Natural Nutrition and Health

proteinPhoto from usa.gov

On my path of learning and living natural nutrition and natural healing I came to the realization that, as with myself, one of the main concerns people have about a vegetarian diet is getting enough protein. I came to understand after a time that although so many have a sense that protein is essential to their diet many do not seem to really know what protein is or what it does. Speaking for myself I always understood that protein is necessary for muscle growth which is why athletes who are trying to build muscle put an emphasis on getting a lot of protein in their diet. I ascertained from this that protein must be necessary as well for organ tissue, nerve and brain cells. I always remembered from school that protein is made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of protein. I assumed that whatever protein people ingest has to be broken down into its essential components and reconstructed as human protein. Unfortunately when I would mention this in a discussion with people I would just get blank looks. What I would keep hearing from people is that they felt that protein was necessary to “have energy”. I of course realized that the body mainly gets energy from carbohydrates including breaking down fats for calories to use for energy. I, also, knew that the body has to convert starch, sugars and fat to glucose which is the only kind of sugar the cells of the body can use for energy from calories. As well I knew that the body has to produce insulin to deliver the glucose in order for it to be usable to the cells. I did know that the body can use protein for energy from calories but this is not the main function of protein in our diet.

When I started on a path of reducing meat in my diet and learning to cook organic, vegetarian meals from scratch I chose a book called, Diet For A Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, which had vegetarian recipes, each of which had complementary proteins listed. I felt that I could trust these recipes to have well balanced meals with the protein I needed in my diet. I certainly was not disappointed and have reaped the rewards of good health.

After a time however my continual frustration with the fact that most people did not seem to understand what protein is or what it does even though they emphasized so much importance on having lots of it in their diet brought me to the conclusion that I had to do the research to back up what I essentially knew. When I even tried to tell people that too much protein is bad for them I would either get blank looks or a canned response of “Well, too much of anything is bad for you”. I realized that I, myself, owed it to myself to really understand protein and amino acids more thoroughly. I especially needed to be able to explain protein and complementary proteins from plant sources to people to take away their fear of vegetarianism. I could plainly see that this lack of knowledge about health and nutrition was responsible for people simply taking the easy way out and continuing to consume lots of meat. I was tired of seeing people literally making themselves sick and killing themselves by degrees because of a lack of knowledge about something so fundamental to understanding good health.

When I started my research on protein I was immediately confronted by some amazing facts! The first was that after water people are mainly made of protein, more than calcium or anything else. The second fact was something I had been taught in school but had forgotten about which was that our very genetics, our genes and chromosomes, are made of protein.   Well, this obviously explains why after water we are mainly made of protein. Even our bones and teeth have protein in them. All cells of our bodies have to have some protein because of the genetic information they contain. Obviously muscle tissue has more protein than other tissue.

8656058266_d318b022c5_zPhoto from usa.gov

Of course protein whether from animal or plant sources has to be broken down by the body into its essential components to be useable to the body and reconstructed into human proteins (plural). What are the essential components of protein? They are amino acids but more importantly the human body needs the “essential” amino acids. The term, essential amino acids, is a little difficult to understand because in fact the human body, mainly the liver, produces eighty per cent of the amino acids that we need. However the essential amino acids are the amino acids that our own bodies do not produce so we have to get these nutrients from food. These essential amino acids then are the building blocks from which our own bodies are able to produce all of the other amino acids to produce all of the different types of proteins our bodies need. The liver takes the essential amino acids and puts them together in different combinations of varying amounts and even aligns the molecular structure of the amino acids to produce all of the proteins our body needs. In fact enzymes and hormones are specialized types of proteins. Cholesterol is a specialized type of protein.

What are the essential amino acids? As with most things when doing research we may get different answers especially since science is perpetually trying to keep up with learning about nature. Many sources say that there are eight essential amino acids but a good recourse I use, Prescription For Nutritional Healing by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, doesn’t say how many essential amino acids there are but names them. I have counted them over and over again and I count nine and they are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylananine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

So what about complementary proteins? People apparently assume that if they eat meat they get what they call, “a complete protein”, therefore they assume that if they eat meat they don’t have to worry about getting the protein that they need in their diets. This actually is incorrect. In fact an egg is the closest thing to a completely useable protein by the body. However one egg has all the cholesterol we need in a day so it is not a good choice to eat eggs all the time. Even with meat a person needs protein from plant sources. All of the essential amino acids have to present in the body within a four hour period in their proper amounts for the body to be able to produce the amino acids and proteins that we need. Excess protein causes the liver to try to turn it into glucose for energy but there are only four calories in one gram of protein and the process of converting it to glucose creates ammonia which is harmful to the body. The liver turns the ammonia into urea which is less toxic and then eliminates the urea through the bloodstream and kidneys. Excess protein, too often, will wear out the liver and kidneys. Not having all the essential amino acids in balance can cause a negative nitrogen imbalance which is unhealthy. The body will urinate out nitrogen.

5941039768_a4aa318880_zPhoto from usa.gov

Clearly getting less meat in the diet and getting more protein from plant sources will keep people from getting too much protein and protect people from some of the other harms of excess meat consumption. This gets back to the question of how do we know we are getting the right balance of complementary proteins. In the book, Diet For A Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé has charts of complementary proteins for easy understanding. After studying these diagrams I have noticed that a good rule of thumb is to eat foods from different food groups in each meal. These food groups for complementary proteins may be a little different than what people are used to however because seeds and nuts are in a different group than grains. Fruits are not really mentioned because they are so low in protein. This is a little confusing because people think of seeds as being grains however sunflower seeds and sesame seeds are in the group with seeds and nuts for complementary protein purposes. In general then we would be looking at whole grains with beans or legumes such as peas and lentils would be complementary proteins. Corn and beans, wheat and beans and, good news, wheat and dairy made with whole or skim milk are complementary proteins. Even a single serving of pasta has seven grams of protein so you do not have to give up your bagel with cream cheese or pasta with parmesan cheese! If you have sesame seeds on your bagel you even get an extra complementary protein. Peanuts are very deficient in some essential amino acids but with grains and especially with sunflower seeds added it is well balanced with essential proteins.

It is important to note that even if a person gets the proper amounts of the essential amino acids in the diet the body may not be able to use this available protein without the proper balance of vitamins and minerals. As a general rule as Frances Moore Lappé so aptly puts it even in a completely plant based diet the more different kinds of food one eats the less one has to worry about getting the proper balance of essential amino acids and healthy protein.

But what about the people who say that we get energy from protein? As it turns out some of the essential amino acids do help to supply energy to muscles. Isoleucine helps to regulate blood sugar and energy levels. The best way to think of protein however is that it is necessary for cell growth. This definitely includes making babies. Women who are expecting a child or nursing need more protein. People’s protein needs change at times. Small children have very different nutritional needs including a lot of fat before the age of two for the brain to develop properly for one thing and since children are growing they need a higher percentage of protein per the total caloric intake in their day.