Yesterday, I promised you vegan enchiladas, and I do not disappoint: the following recipe for sweet potato and black bean enchiladas is probably my favorite enchilada recipe to date (I’ve made all kinds, ranging from the uber-traditional to the uber-weird). What made me think to make them, though, wasn’t merely the corn tortillas in my fridge, or the fact that warm weather and Mexican flavors pair naturally, but rather the fact that I’ve been thinking a lot about iron lately. Just the other day, I got this email:
I have been vegan for a little over 6 years and always strive to eat healthful whole foods. Recently I have noticed that I am loosing lots of hair on my head, so my doctor took my blood to test my iron levels. Even though I eat lots of iron-rich plant foods (seeds, nuts, dried fruit, beans, greens), my iron counts were still way too low. Now, I am taking an iron supplement, but I really want to eat my nutrients, not take them in supplement form. Could you give me some ideas on how to add more iron-rich plant foods into my diet so that I won’t have to be on this supplement forever? My doctor told me to start eating red meat and liver (!) and I was kind of horrified.
I should preface my response here with a few key points:
●Severe deficiencies of any kind (B12, D, iron, etc.) can often be an individual problem that really does demand close medical attention; you might have malabsorption issues or a health challenge that’s causing your levels to dip very low. Talk to a medical professional whom you trust about exploring the deficiency further.
●If you do have a severe deficiency, your doctor will likely recommend a medicinal dosage until the deficiency resolves
●Non-heme iron (the kind in plant food) can be more difficult to digest than heme iron, which is found in meat. Consequently, iron needs for vegans are generally thought to be slightly higher than those for omnivores
●Some dark leafy greens (namely spinach) contain compounds called oxalates that block our iron absorption if we eat them raw. This is a good reason to get a mixture of both raw and cooked vegetables, even if you love raw foods
●Strong iron supplements can be very binding, so try to take them along with lots of water and other foods that help you to eliminate well: this varies from person to person, but for me it’s lots of fresh juice, some whole grains, dried fruit, beets, band lot of salad, naturally.
Once you eliminate the possibility that you have a medical issue that goes beyond diet, and once you normalize the deficiency, you will indeed want to seek out some dietary changes that help you to keep iron high. A good ballpark range is 10-15 mg daily for vegan men, and 15-20 mg daily for vegan women. Fortunately, iron is readily available in vegan foods. My favorite sources are:
●Tofu and Tempeh
Some people are surprised to hear about that first item: molasses has iron? It does, and if your bloodwork ever indicates low iron levels, you may want to try having a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses each morning (straight up, or in a bowl of hot cereal). It’s a concentrated iron source (15% of your RDA per tablespoon on average), and many find that it helps to stave off any signs of iron-deficiency anemia. If you can’t tolerate the taste on its own—which is understandable, given how distinctive it is—I recommend hiding it in foods. Put two teaspoons in a bowl of oats, a teaspoon in a smoothie, or a nice hefty dose into a baked goods recipe You might even put it into one of my chia puddings!
If those ideas don’t work, give these iron-rich enchiladas a try. The filling already provides some iron from black beans, but adding some blackstrap molasses makes it an even better food source. Beyond that, these are a perfect summer potluck or easy dinner recipe: if you cut the prep into a few phases (I made the sauce the day before I assembled these, the filling the morning of, and just baked them at night) they’re actually pretty easy to assemble. They’ll work nicely for a hearty summer meal or a warming winter one, and I can’t recommend them enough!
Again, the enchiladas are easy to prepare ahead of time: whip up the sauce a day or two beforehand, make the sweet potato filling the day or night before (it’ll keep nicely in the fridge for at least 48 hours) and then simply assemble on the day of serving.
1 serving of these vegan sweet potato and black bean enchiladas provides you with over 30% of your RDA of iron. So, if you’re eating a balanced diet throughout the day, and if you pair them with a side dish (or array of side dishes) that also has a decent iron content, you’re in good shape to finish the day full of the plant-based iron you need. Keep in mind, too, that our bodies absorb iron better when we’re also eating vitamin C, so serving these with some fennel or red peppers is a great idea!
Hope this offers some clarity on iron, and inspires you to veganize your favorite enchilada recipe. Tell me, how do you get your RDA of iron? What are your favorite sources?
See you tomorrow!
Images courtesy of Lighter.