Iron rich foods – what vegetarians need to know

Plant based diets are becoming more popular, especially among younger people.  Mintel research published in 2014 found that 12% of the UK population is now vegetarian or vegan, with the proportion of 16-24 year olds being 20%. Although studies suggest that eating a meat-free diet is good for health,  there are a few special diet considerations for vegetarians and vegans.  One of the most important is to make sure that they eat plenty of iron rich foods.

Why iron rich foods are important

Iron plays an essential role in the body’s oxygen delivery system.   Symptoms of iron deficiency (anaemia) include:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Short attention span
  • Irritability
  • Poor athletic performance
  • Poor mental performance

Unfortunately, getting enough iron isn’t as simple as eating plenty of iron rich foods.  Although there are good quantities of iron in many plant foods, it isn’t absorbed into the body as easily as the iron in meat.  This means that those on a meat-free diet can be more at risk of developing anaemia.

Best iron rich foods for vegetarians

Iron rich foods for vegetarians - beans and pulses

The following foods are all good plant sources of iron:

  • Wholegrains
  • Green leafy veg
  • Dried fruit (especially apricot)
  • Legumes
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Peas

How to improve absorption

The best way to improve absorption of iron is by eating or drinking something high in vitamin C with meals. This can be as simple as having a glass of orange juice.  It’s also best to avoid foods and drinks which can reduce iron absorption such as:

  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Dairy products
  • Cereals with a high bran content
  • Foods high in oxalic acid, like spinach, chard and rhubarb.  (Note: although spinach contains iron, the oxalic acid makes the iron hard to absorb.)
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Other concerns for a plant based diet

Protein

Iron rich foods - beans on toast

Protein is needed for growth and repair.  The body needs a constant supply of protein as new cells are continually being made.  Protein from animal sources is “complete”, which means it contains all the amino acids we need to obtain from our diet.  However, plant proteins don’t have the complete set of amino acids.  To overcome this, vegetarians need to a wide range of protein foods, such as grains, pulses, beans, nuts and seeds.

Until recently food combining was advised.  This means combining different types of plant protein within the same meal to get the full set of amino acids.  Current thinking is that this is not strictly necessary and that the body can store amino acids from one meal to the next.  However, the various food groups often combine well anyway.  For example, beans with grains (as in baked beans on toast),  or pulses with grains (as in lentil dhal with rice).

Vitamin B12

The roles of Vitamin B12 include being essential to nervous system  and red blood cell function.   Getting enough B12 is difficult for non-meat eaters as humans can’t obtain if from plant sources.  Vegetarians can meet their B12 requirements from eggs and dairy products.  For vegans the only option is to take supplements or to eat foods fortified with B12, such as breakfast cereals.

Reasons for going meat-free

Although plant based diets may need a little more planning, there are good reasons why going meat-free is becoming more popular:

  • Concerns over animal welfare
  • Concerns about the environmental impact/sustainability of meat farming
  • Greater interest in healthier eating, particularly cutting down on saturated fats

Environmental benefits of going meat-free

The environmental benefits of a meat-free diet are more clear cut.  Here a few statistics which illustrate the impact on the environment of meat farming:

  • Farmed animals consume a third of the world’s cereals and about 80% of the world’s soy harvest.
  • More than half the wheat and 60% of the barley grown in the UK is for livestock.
  • Cattle consume around 7kg of grain for every 1kg of beef produced and pigs consume 4kg for every 1kg of pork.
  • Livestock production is responsible for 70% of the Amazon deforestation in Latin America, where the rainforest has been cleared to create new pastures.
  • It takes around 1-2,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of wheat compared to  between 13,000 litres and 100,000 litres for a kilo of beef.
  • Farmed animals produce enormous quantities of greenhouse gases: 1/3 of all methane generated by human activity is produced by livestock.  Methane has 25 times the global warming impact of CO2

Figures taken from the Vegetarian Society website factsheets: Going Veggie For The Environment and Why it’s Green to go Vegetarian 

Even going meatless for one day a week makes a difference to the environmental impact.  This is the idea behind the Meatless Monday campaign.  Read more about this and get inspiration for veggie food on the website.

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Although going veggie is GOOD for HEALTH  vegetarians need to ensure their diet contains plenty of protein and iron rich foods and that they get enough vitamin B12

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