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How to boost your iron levels if you're vegetarian or vegan

Netdoctor (UK) logo Netdoctor (UK) 5 days ago Karen Gordon

How to boost your iron levels if you're vegetarian or vegan © Westend61 / Getty How to boost your iron levels if you're vegetarian or vegan Going vegetarian or switching to an entirely plant-based diet is popular right now. Whatever the reason you've decided to become a vegetarian, a diet without meat or fish (or eggs and dairy if you're vegan) can be healthy, but because you're eliminating certain food groups from your diet you need to make sure that you get all your key nutrients.

One of the biggest concerns when you are a vegetarian is ensuring that you're getting enough iron in your diet, which is an essential mineral because it contributes to the production of blood cells, advises nutritionist Hilary Bodie. She says: "Iron is needed for the manufacture of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood, maintaining healthy muscles, aiding metabolic function and is also part of many enzymes and immune-system compounds. Iron essentially helps our muscles use oxygen for energy and protein maintenance."

The recommended daily amount for iron is currently between 8 to 15mg; 8.7mg for men and 14.8mg for women, due to menstrual-related iron losses.

The World Health Organisation currently considers iron deficiency as the number one nutritional disorder in the world and as many as 2 billion (over 30% of the world's population) are anaemic.

The best sources of dietary iron for a vegetarian

Although meat may be one of the best sources of dietary iron, there are also a wide range of vegetarian foods that can provide you with all the iron you need. The important thing to remember, when including iron-rich foods in your diet, is not so much how much iron you consume but how well your body will absorb it, says Hilary.

There are two types of dietary iron: haem iron found in lean red meat and non-haem iron found in plants, grains and nuts. Hilary recommends these as good sources of non-haem iron: 

  • Pulses, including chickpeas, dried beans, lentils, tofu and peas.
  • Nuts, especially almonds, cashews and pistachios.
  • Seeds including pumpkin, sunflower and sesame.
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale, cabbage, Swiss chard, spring greens and watercress. Spirulina seaweed is another very rich source of iron.
  • Dried fruit such as apricots, raisins and figs.
  • Wholegrains such as quinoa, brown rice and oatmeal.
  • Cereals fortified with iron.
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How to get more iron from your diet

The body absorbs haem iron more easily than it absorbs the non-haem iron, says Hilary.

But when non-haem is consumed with vitamin C, the body absorbs it much better. "So it's a good idea to combine iron-rich foods with foods that contain vitamin C. Therefore simply by adding a handful of sliced kiwi fruit to your fortified cereal in the morning or drinking a glass of orange juice will help increase your iron uptake."

Similarly, adding vegetables such as tomatoes, red or green peppers, cauliflower or courgettes to your grains, pulses or brown rice or salads will have a similar effect. For an iron-rich, nutrient-dense meal, add chopped red peppers, lightly steamed broccoli and fresh lemon juice to a portion of quinoa. Other perfect partners to try include spinach salad with orange slices; bean burrito with salsa and oatmeal with strawberries.

A lot of vegetarian sources of iron also contain vitamin C, such as leafy greens like kale and broccoli, which make them an ideal. 

Foods that inhibit iron absorption

Just as certain foods can enhance non-haem iron absorption, there are others that can inhibit its absorption, advises Hilary.  "Foods to avoid include tannin and caffeine - found in tea, coffee, chocolate and cola-based drinks - which bind to iron and hinder the absorption of this important mineral. Try not to have a cuppa with your main meal and wait at least an hour after you've eaten."

Phytates (phytic acid) found in grains, bread and pasta can also bind minerals, such as iron in the gut before they are absorbed. Again the presence of vitamin C helps reduce the inhibiting effects of these phytates. 

How do you know if you are lacking iron?

If a person is otherwise healthy, it can take some time for the signs of anaemia to appear. It can be notoriously difficult to accurately diagnose anaemia simply by looking at someone, says Dr Roger Henderson, our resident GP. "I have seen people who appear almost transparent that are completely healthy and ruddy-faced chaps with a severe anaemia – the only sure- fire way of knowing is from a blood test. Some people only find out there is a problem when they have their blood checked before giving blood at donor centres."

The first symptoms of anaemia will be tiredness and palpitations (awareness of heartbeat). Roger says that tiredness is the usual giveaway in the patients that he sees. "And I don't just mean being a bit fatigued at the end of a busy day either. It is usually chronic, constant and even the mildest exertion may seem an effort. Paleness sometimes occurs (which is where pulling down the eyelid to check for paleness comes in, although this is only usually seen in severe anaemia) as can palpitations and shortness of breath when walking."

If a diet containing iron-rich food doesn't rectify your anaemia, iron supplements in the form of tablets are often used for weeks or months to replenish stores in the blood – although iron injections will be needed if these do not raise iron levels sufficiently high enough.

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