Iron: Ironing out the facts by Glen Matten
Whilst there is a pervading perception that vegetarians inevitably fall short on iron there is really little difference in the risk of anaemia when comparing vegetarians with omnivores. Of course, eating an unbalanced and nutritionally poor vegetarian diet does run the risk of causing iron deficiency, but get the balance of the diet right and it’s perfectly possible to get ample iron from a vegetarian diet.
It is though worth knowing that the iron is different in plant foods compared with animal foods. Animal foods, notably red meat, provide iron in a very bio-available form called haem iron, which is easy for the body to absorb and use. In contrast, plant foods provide a less bio-available form called non-haem iron, which is harder to absorb and use. Because of the lower bio-availability of iron in a vegetarian diet, it is recommended that iron intakes for vegetarians are almost double those of non-vegetarians. Some of the best vegetarian sources of iron are listed below.
Unlike haem iron, the trouble with non-haem iron is that its absorption can be inhibited by lots of things in the diet such as phytates (found in grains, legumes, nuts/seeds), calcium (found in dairy products), and polyphenols (found in tea/coffee/herb teas/cocoa). Just having a cup of coffee with or just after a meal can reduce iron absorption by 40%, whilst a cup of tea reduces it by 60-70%.
The good news is that other factors in the diet can make up for that and actually promote the absorption on non-haem iron. The most notable is vitamin C (and other organic acids) found in fruits and vegetables. It’s also worth noting the soaking and sprouting beans, grains and seeds reduces the activity of phytates and thus improves iron absorption, as indeed can fermentation processes.
The irony is that even meat eaters get most of their iron – about 75% – in the form of non-haem iron from plant foods, so it is hardly an issue that vegetarians need to be unduly obsessed with. Enjoying a high quality diet rich in beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables, along with plenty of other vitamin C rich fresh vegetables and fruits should meet iron needs well.
Vegetarian sources of iron
- Egg yolks
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dried fruits
- Blackstrap molasses