For any vegetarian or vegan who has spoken about nutrition with a non-vegetarian, the issue of iron has probably come up. “But how do you get enough iron?” For most people, iron is associated with big hunks of red meat – so it’s hard to imagine how vegetarians can get enough iron to keep their blood red and healthy. Many people have a friend of a friend who is vegetarian and has experienced iron deficiency and the anaemia that goes with it.
Iron deficiency can occur for many reasons, not just eating a diet low in iron. Women of childbearing age are at particular risk because they lose iron during their periods, so the recommended dietary intake of iron for these women is more then twice that for men or children (18 mg/day vs 8 mg/day).
Vegetarian diets can provide plenty of iron. Generally, dairy and eggs are poor sources of iron, so this advice applies equally to vegetarians and vegans. Good sources of dietary iron are simply remembered as “beans and greens” with one cup of cooked lentils or cooked spinach providing ~6.5 mg of iron, beans and greens at the lower end of the range providing ~3.5 mg per cup. By contrast, 100g grilled lean beef provides 2.5 mg iron (65-100g = 1 serve meat; dietary guidelines recommend no more than 1½ serves meat or alternatives per day for adults). So the difference in iron intake between vegetarians and omnivores isn’t very great. Both groups should try to plan iron rich foods into most meals, and do a few small things that help their bodies absorb the iron.
Most of the iron we eat isn’t absorbed into our bodies. We can help our body absorb the iron better by eating iron containing foods at the same meal as vitamin C rich foods, like orange/lemon juice, or brightly coloured veggies (raw or lightly cooked) or fresh fruit. The vit C acts in the stomach to put the iron into a more absorbable form, so they do have to be eaten at the same meal. For women, who need a lot of iron, it is a good idea to have a serve** or more of fruit or veg with as many meals and snacks as possible, to take advantage of all the iron-containing foods.
If you think you may be deficient in iron, don’t just take an iron supplement! Iron can be toxic, and it builds up in your system. For most*** of us, that won’t happen because we eat too much iron rich food – but it can happen because we take too many iron supplements. So if you think you might be iron deficient, or you’re suffering the symptoms of anaemia (fatigue, irritability, decreased immunity) see your doctor – there are many reasons you may feel that way, and the doctor can order the proper tests to check whether your iron stores actually are low or not. If you are low, a course of iron supplements will be needed to get your iron stores back up, and you may wish to speak to a vegetarian friendly dietitian, nutritionist or naturopath about how you can incorporate more iron rich food into your diet.
All of these foods – beans, greens, fruit, veg – are part of a healthy diet. Getting enough iron is about eating them in most meals, most days. Think bean tortillas with fresh salsa; chickpea or soy burgers with melon for dessert; a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled on a salad; peanut butter sandwich and an orange for lunch; stir-fry with tofu and capsicum; dahl, rice and salad…. and many more.
** 1 serve fruit = 150g; 1 serve vegetables = 75 g. Aim for 2 serves fruit + 5 serves vegetables, or more, each day.
*** 0.5% of Caucasians have a genetic disorder (hereditary haemochromatosis) that makes them absorb too much iron.