It’s a myth that you need to eat red meat to get enough iron. Research suggests that vegans actually consume more iron than meat-eaters or vegetarians. The American Dietetic Association says that iron deficiency is no more common among vegetarians than meat-eaters. Still the myth pervades.
Feeling tired, lethargic or lacklustre? Iron is an essential part of haemoglobin, the pigment in red blood cells that carries oxygen to all parts of the body. If iron intake is low, haemoglobin levels can fall, leading to iron-deficiency anaemia.
- Feeling cold
- Inabilityto concentrate
The government recommend 8.7mg of iron per day for men and 14.8mg for women, who require more as they lose iron during menstruation.
One of the largest studies of vegetarians and vegans across Europe, the EPIC-Oxford study, has consistently found that vegans have the highest intake of iron compared to meat-eaters and vegetarians. They also have the highest intakes of healthy polyunsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins C and E, folate, magnesium and copper.
There are two types of iron in food:
Found in animal tissue makes up around half the iron in red meat, poultry and fish. In the diets of meat-eaters, less than 10 per cent of the iron is haem iron.
Makes up the other half of the iron in animal tissue and all the iron in plant foods, dairy foods (which contain a very small amount) and eggs. Most of the iron in a typical UK diet is non-haem iron.
The main difference between the two types of iron is that they are absorbed very differently. Haem iron is readily absorbed in the gut whether it is needed or not, whereas non-haem iron absorption is subject to a range of factors that can increase or inhibit it. Vitamin C can increase iron absorption, while phytates in high fibre foods, polyphenols in tea, coffee and red wine and calcium may inhibit it.
Including foods rich in vitamin C with meals can boost iron absorption significantly. The amount of vitamin C in eight strawberries or a 200ml (7fl oz) glass of orange juice can increase iron absorption 3-4 fold. Try watercress salad with dates, pumpkin seeds and slices of orange, or beans on toast with a glass of orange juice.
Phytate (or phytic acid)
Phytate (or phytic acid) is a substance found in unrefined wholegrains, seeds and pulses, which can bind to iron and reduce absorption. Phytate can be reduced by fermenting, cooking and sprouting, which can increase absorption by up to 60 per cent. Increasing the amount of time bread is fermented can help too – go for that overnight loaf. Remember, although the amount of iron absorbed from wholegrain foods may be compromised by the phytate in them, the total amount of iron absorbed may still be more than you would get from processed white bread and white rice, making wholegrain foods the healthier option as they also contain more vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Polyphenols found in tea (including herbal teas), coffee, cocoa and red wine may bind iron and reduce iron absorption. However, research shows that tea-drinking does not affect iron status in healthy people who eat a well-balanced diet and have good iron stores. Try waiting an hour after eating before drinking tea.
Calcium may inhibit iron absorption, but again, research suggests that calcium has a limited effect and may be counteracted by vitamin C. This means you shouldn’t limit your intake as calcium is very important. Simply avoid taking calcium supplements at the same time as food.
What’s your status?
Non-haem iron absorption is also affected by iron status – how much iron you already have in your body. People with low iron stores tend to absorb more iron and excrete less, taking what they need. The body does not limit its absorption of haem iron and this is not necessarily a good thing, as the body has no mechanism for disposing of any excess. Too much iron is linked to heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer. Many meat-eaters are oversupplied with iron. It follows that iron from plant foods is more beneficial because its absorption is safely regulated.
That said, iron deficiency is a concern in both developing and industrialised countries. The government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that iron intake among some girls and women in the UK were particularly low. There was evidence of anaemia plus low iron stores, indicating iron deficiency in nearly five per cent of girls and women. This was not a group of vegans, so clearly being a meat-eater does not guarantee protection against low iron intakes.
Contrary to the idea that meat is the main source of iron in a meat-eaters diet, the survey showed that cereals and cereal products (bread and fortified breakfast cereals) are the main source of iron in everyone’s diet. People who don’t eat meat can easily get sufficient iron from wholegrain foods, pulses, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, that also provide healthy fats and valuable fibre.
You can easily achieve your daily iron intake from a range of everyday foods. For breakfast, add some nuts, seeds and raisins to your cereal along with a few vitamin C-rich blueberries or strawberries. Or tuck into scrambled tofu on wholemeal toast with a glass of orange juice. An iron-rich lunch might be a Moroccan lentil soup and a wholemeal roll, or a quinoa and mixed bean salad. Dinner ideas include smoked tofu stir-fry with brown rice, broccoli and pumpkin seeds, or chickpea and spinach curry or pasta and beans. Be adventurous!