Iron-rich foods for vegetarians
If you're eating less meat these days, keeping your iron levels up may seem a challenge. Registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains how to boost your iron intake when eating a plant-focused diet
What is iron?
Iron is a trace mineral, which means we need it in small, but regular amounts. Among iron’s many uses is its role in making healthy red blood cells and sustaining our energy levels. If you're a vegetarian or reducing the amount of meat you eat, there are still lots of iron-rich options.
Those most at risk of low levels of this essential mineral are women of reproductive age, because menstrual periods have a major influence on iron status, and children because they are rapidly growing.
How do I know if I am eating enough iron?
If you're suffering from tiredness, have a pale complexion, feel cold and experience problems concentrating – a particular issue for children of school age – you may be low in iron. 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’re 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
I’m vegetarian and concerned about my iron intake – which foods should I eat?
Although red meat, poultry and fish provide an easy-to-absorb form of iron called haem, plant sources also make a valuable contribution. Look to include a variety of these plant foods:
- dark green leafy vegetables, like 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 (high cocoa) chocolate.
How can I optimise the amount of iron I absorb from plant-based foods?
Some clever kitchen hacks can help you get the best out of your plant-based diet. One trick is that because vitamin C helps you absorb iron (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 with your cereal can increase your iron uptake considerably. The same principle is used in our vegetable tagine – we’ve combined ingredients that supply vitamin C, such as courgettes and tomatoes, along with peas, raisins and chickpeas, which are good sources of iron.
Which food or drinks should I minimise if I am trying to increase my iron intake?
Just as some foods promote your absorption of iron, others can hinder it. A cup of tea, for example, contains tannins, these compounds 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, such as wholegrains and legumes, contain compounds called phytates. These can affect how well you absorb iron – once again, vitamin C can be helpful because it binds with phytates making them less of a problem.
Similarly, beta-carotene found 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 sprouting them.
Dairy foods like yogurt, cheese and milk, as well as eggs, may interfere with iron absorption because casein from milk and certain forms of calcium are thought to inhibit our ability to absorb iron. However, dairy foods and eggs make a useful contribution to the diet, so the advice should be to aim for a balanced and varied diet.
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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, limit our ability to absorb their rich iron content. 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, such as a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
If you suspect an iron deficiency refer to your GP – you should not supplement with iron unless diagnosed and advised to do so by your GP.
Looking for some iron-rich recipes?
Have you made changes to improve your iron intake? Share your experiences in the comments below…
This article was last reviewed on 28th June 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist 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. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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