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 glut of corn tortilla’s at M’s place, 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 problem 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, it’s usually wise to take the supplement your doctor recommends, at least until your levels normalize (I’m thinking here of the many, many vegans and omnis who write to me with very low Vit D levels, and want to know if they should take the medicinal level supplement)—yes, I think you should, and then explore dietary answers when your body is more in balance.
- Some new vegans have a hard time absorbing non-heme iron (the kind in plant food) at first, but actually their bodies do adjust and levels even out over time. Don’t panic right away about the fact that you’re eating lentils and still having low iron.
- Some dark leafy greens (namely spinach) contain compounds called oxalates that block our iron absorption if we eat them raw. This is one of many reasons I believe in a high raw, but not all raw diet: try to get a variety of both cooked and steamed vegetables.
- 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. And I assure you that this need not mean red meat or liver! Anemia runs in my family (all of the women on my mother’s side have had it on and off for life) and many people are amused to know that, when I became vegan, my anemia (which was also fueled by my ED) actually disappeared. I’ve never had a problem with iron since. This isn’t entirely unconscious, because I do give iron some thought (as I do all nutrients), but I don’t have to work overly hard at it, either.
Most dieticians suggest that vegans get slightly more iron than non-vegans, since non-heme iron is harder to absorb. Beyond that, all menstruating females (regardless of dietary orientation) should also be mindful of iron. So 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:
- Blackstrap Molasses
- Tofu and Tempeh
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Black-eyed Peas
- Dried Apricots
- Tahini/Sesame seeds
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 oh-so-simple to make. They’ll work nicely for a hearty summer meal or a warming winter one, and I can’t recommend them enough!
Vegan Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas with Tomatillo Sauce (vegan, can be GF, soy free)
For the tomatillo sauce:
8-10 tomatillos (I used ten very small ones)
1 small clove garlic
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 tsp cumin
Dash tobasco sauce (or a dash cayenne)
1 tsp agave or tbsp natural sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
1) Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Take the skins off of the tomatillos and place them in the water and cover the pot. Cook till the tomatillos’ skin is splitting and peeling off, about 10-12 min.
2) Remove the tomatillos from the pot, allow to cool for a few minutes, then add them to a VitaMix or blender with all other ingredients. Blend on high till sauce is smooth (you can leave it a little textured if you like, but I prefer mine to be creamy).
For the enchiladas:
3 large sweet potatoes (or 4-5 regular ones), peeled and cut into large cubes
1/2 yellow onion
1 BPA-free can of organic black beans, or 2 cups freshly cooked
3 tbsp blackstrap molasses
1 tbsp almond butter (optional, but makes the filling nice and creamy)
1-2 tbsp lime juice
1/2-1 tsp salt (to taste)
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp chili powder
Black pepper to taste
8-10 corn or whole grain tortillas
1/2 cup or so Daiya pepperjack or cheddar cheese (optional)
1) Boil a large pot of salted water, and add the sweet potatoes. Cook till they’re fork tender, and drain.
2) Sautee onion in the pot you cooked the potatoes in (now empty) with a few tablespoons of water or some coconut oil spray. When they’re tender and light brown, add the sweet potatoes, black beans, molasses, almond butter (if using), lime juice, salt, cumin, chili powder, and black pepper, and mash with a hand masher or fork till the mixture still has quite a bit of texture, but resembles chunky mashed potatoes and beans.
3) Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
4) Assemble your enchiladas by rolling about 1/4-1/3 of the filling into each of your tortillas, and laying them side by side in a small rectangular baking dish. Cover them with all of the tomatillo sauce (they’s supposed to be smothered), and then sprinkle them with Daiya if using.
5) Bake for about 30 minutes, till cheese has melted and enchiladas are hot (if you make the filling ahead and refrigerate it, you’ll maybe need a few more minutes than this).
6) S&S (serve & swoon).
Again, this is an easy dish to make 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. Easy peasy.
1 serving of these guys 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!