Despite the common misperception that it is hard for vegetarians to get enough iron, the hemoglobin values and most other measures are similar in vegetarians to non-vegetarians. (1) There is evidence that shows that individuals can adapt and absorb non-haem iron more effectively, and in fact can also reduce iron losses.
The main functions of iron are to help supply oxygen to the blood, to help the body resist disease, to promote red blood cell formation, and to maintain proper metabolism. Most iron is present in haemoglobin and the remainder is stored in the liver, spleen and bone marrow. A small amount is present as myoglobin which acts as an oxygen store in muscle tissue.
Iron deficiency (a common condition) can lead to anaemia which is where the iron stores in the body have become depleted and haemoglobin synthesis is inhibited. Symptoms include tiredness, lack of stamina, breathlessness, depression, dim vision and poor memory, all of which are associated with decreased oxygen supply to tissues and organs. Iron deficiency in infants can result in impaired learning ability and behavioural problems. There are two dietary forms of iron, haem (found in animal tissues) and non-haem (present in plant foods).
Vitamin C greatly increases the absorption of non-haem iron. Foods rich in vitamin C include fresh leafy green vegetables, red peppers and fruit. Iron absorption can also be influenced by the combination of the foods and an individual’s iron levels.
Tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption. Try to drink these between meals rather than directly before, during or after a meal.
Good: Chickpeas, dark leafy greens, beans, nuts, molasses, dried apricots, figs, brewers yeast, fresh wheat germ, marmite.
Fair: Boiled egg, avocado, asparagus, wholemeal bread, broccoli, brown rice.
Poor: Milk (cow’s), cheese, yoghurt, banana.
The former RDA, Recommended Daily Amounts, have now been replaced by the term Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI). The RNI is the amount of nutrient which is enough for at least 97% of the population.
||Teen boys up to adult males
||Teen girls to adult females
Extra iron is required by women during pregnancy and breast feeding. In women, loss from menstruation adds considerably to requirements, though the losses are variable. Research shows that 10% women of child bearing age will need more iron than the RNI indicates.
This will meet the RNI of 14.8mg of iron for a woman aged between 11-49 years. This is an example only, remember variety is essential for a healthy diet.
If you require any dietary advice, please consult a reputable dietician knowledgable in vegetarianism.
Total iron intake: 14.9mg
(1) Mangels R, Messina V, Messina M. The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets. 3rd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011.