Iron-rich foods for vegetarians
If you're eating less meat these days, keeping your iron levels up may seem like a challenge. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains how to get the most from your food to boost iron.
We all need iron in our diet for our bodies to make healthy red blood cells, and to sustain our energy levels. If you're a vegetarian or reducing the amount of meat you eat, there are still a lot of options. Surveys suggest that those most at risk of low levels are women of reproductive age, because menstrual periods have a major influence on iron status, and children who have a greater requirement for growth and development.
Are you getting enough iron?
If you're low in iron you're likely to be suffering from tiredness, have a pale complexion, feel cold and experience problems concentrating - which can be a particular issue for children of school age. You're also more likely to pick up colds and infections because iron is needed to maintain the immune system. The amount of iron you need depends on your age and whether you are male or female:
- Women of reproductive age – 14.8mg a day
- Men over 18 years of age and post-menopausal women – 8.7mg a day
What should I eat if I'm vegetarian?
Although red meat, poultry and fish provide an easy-to-absorb form of iron called haem, plant sources can make just as valuable a contribution. These include:
- dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale and watercress
- whole-grains like brown rice, pasta and wholemeal bread
- nuts and seeds, such as walnuts and pumpkin seeds
- dried fruits, like apricots, prunes and raisins
- black treacle (molasses)
- dark chocolate
How to get the most from your food
Making some crafty combinations can help you get the most out of these iron-rich foods. For example, vitamin C helps you absorb iron, because it converts it into a more soluble form. Simply adding a handful of strawberries to a bowl of fortified breakfast cereal or enjoying a glass of orange juice alongside your cereal can increase iron uptake considerably. The same principle is used in this vegetable tagine recipe - which contains added foods that supply vitamin C, like courgettes and tomatoes, along-with peas, raisins and chickpeas, which are all good sources of iron.
What to avoid...
Just as some foods promote your absorption of iron, others can hinder it. Tea, for example, contains tannins that bind to iron, so it's best to enjoy your cuppa away from your main meal, or at least wait an hour after you've eaten. Other foods, including whole-grains as well as legumes, contain compounds called phytates, which can affect how well you absorb the iron they contain - once again, vitamin C can be helpful because it binds with phytates reducing their inhibitory effects. Similarly, beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which is found in plentiful supply in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, helps reduce the effects of phytates making iron more accessible. You can also minimise the phytates in grains, seeds and pulses by soaking, cooking and even sprouting.
Dairy products like yogurt, cheese and milk as well as eggs interfere with iron absorption - that's because casein from milk and certain forms of calcium inhibit iron absorption, so make sure you try to eat a varied, balanced diet.
A note on oxalic acid...
Thanks to a certain cartoon character most of us are familiar with the iron-rich qualities of spinach , although we're often told that a compound called oxalic acid found in the leaves, as well as other greens like chard, limits our ability to absorb its iron. The good news is that Popeye may well have been right. Recent studies have thrown doubt over the negative impact of oxalic acid on iron absorption. So, go ahead and follow Popeye's lead - enjoy a serving of spinach but maximise its benefits by combining with vitamin C-rich foods, like citrus fruits.
This article was last reviewed on 3rd August 2021 by Tracey Raye.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.