One of the first questions people will ask if you decide to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet is “How will you get enough iron?” After all, meat is the prime source of iron in most westerners’ diets. Our bodies need iron to make the red pigment, haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in our blood to where it is needed. Iron is also used to form myoglobin, a muscle protein, and is found in a number of enzymes involved in energy production.
A shortage iron in our diets results in anaemia. Lethargy, breathlessness, irritability, poor concentration, abnormal sensations such as “pins and needles”, sore tongue and of course, looking pale are all symptoms of anaemia. Teenage girls, pregnant women and nursing mothers are especially prone to developing anaemia because of their increased need for iron. Women who have very heavy periods may also develop a shortage of iron.
Lack of iron in a baby or toddler’s diet can have a long term effect on their physical and intellectual development. Breast-fed babies over the age of six months who are not introduced to solids can become iron deficient. So can those whose diet consists mostly of cow’s milk. The evidence from reputable scientific studies is that a carefully selected, well balanced vegetarian diet can supply all the normal iron requirements. How do you ensure that your iron intake is adequate? Here are ten ways of adding iron to a vegetarian diet.
1. Include plenty of beans, peas and lentils (pulses).
Dried pulses such as adzuki beans, kidney beans, chick peas, red and green lentils, and soy beans are not only a great source of protein, they also contain significant amounts of iron. Don’t forget products made from pulses – tofu and tempeh for instance. Soy flour and chickpea flour (besan) can be added to cakes, sauces, casseroles, pancakes and other dishes to boost their iron and protein content.
2. Eat up your greens.
Popeye used spinach to build up his muscles. You can too, but buy it fresh or frozen, not canned. Boiling green vegetables reduces their iron content, so cook them lightly, or use them in salads. Silver beet contains as much iron as spinach. Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, green cabbage, Asian greens, endive and kale have smaller but still useful amounts of iron.
3. Nibble on nuts.
Nuts such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts, brazil nuts and cashews are good sources of iron. So too are pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Use them as a snack, or add them to main meals and desserts.
4. Fill up on cereals and pasta.
Most whole-grain cereals and flours contain some iron. Removing the bran from rice and other cereals reduces their iron content, but even refined cereals such as white rice still have useful amounts.
Pasta, particularly if it is of the wholemeal variety, will also add iron to your diet.
5. Crack an egg.
Unless you are following a vegan diet or have to avoid eggs for some other reason, you can use eggs to add both iron and vitamin B12 to your diet. (Vitamin B12 deficiency is another cause of anaemia.) Many dieticians allow 3 to 4 eggs per week even in a low cholesterol diet. If you don’t like eggs boiled or scrambled, add them to rissoles, pancakes, desserts and other dishes.
6. Read the label.
Many prepackaged foods have iron added to them. These include breakfast cereals, breads, soy milks, powdered drinks and yeast spreads. If you have a choice, choose one with added iron.
7. Think Vitamin C.
Iron from plants is not as well absorbed by our bodies as iron from meat. Some plants also contain substances called phytates which interfere with iron absorption. However, if you eat vitamin C at the same meal, more of the iron can be utilised.
It’s a good idea to include a source of vitamin C with every meal – tomatoes, capsi*****, oranges, strawberries, kiwi fruit, pineapple and many other fruits are good sources.
Prolonged cooking destroys vitamin C, but stir-frying and microwaving food has less effect. Frozen and canned fruits retain most of their Vitamin C.
8. Forget the cuppa.
Tannic acid, found in tea, reduces iron absorption if taken at the same time as
food. Drink low-tannin teas, or at least avoid having a cup of tea with a meal.
9. Consider a supplement.
If you are pregnant, or breast feeding, you may find it difficult to get enough iron from your diet alone. Some obstetricians routinely prescribe an iron supplement to all pregnant women. Others prefer to give supplements only to those who show evidence of iron deficiency.
Iron tablets can cause nausea and constipation in some people, although taking them with food can reduce this. Excessive iron intake can be dangerous, so don’t be tempted to use iron tablets prescribed for another person, and keep any iron tablets well out of children’s reach. If you think that you may be suffering from anaemia, see your doctor or a qualified therapist.
10. Good news for chocaholics!
Chocolate and cocoa contain small but significant amounts of iron. Their fat content works against them becoming a major part of our diets, but in moderation there’s no reason not to enjoy them.