“Eat more meat,” is what the family doctor said to me as she sat on her computer looking at my blood work that showed a deficiency in iron. I’m a vegetarian, eating more meat was not an option for me, so let’s just say I never went back to that doctor. This was a few years ago, my iron is now within normal range, I am still a vegetarian and I don’t have to take supplements. So how did I get my iron to a healthy range without eating more meat? By being aware of the food sources of iron and optimizing my body’s ability to absorb this nutrient from my vegetarian food sources!
Iron is a mineral needed for the formation of hemoglobin in your blood that carries oxygen in the body. Low iron often causes fatigue, irritability, headaches, and paleness. I remember before I had my iron assessed, I could barely get through my runs anymore before hitting complete exhaustion!
There are two forms of iron:
Heme-iron is easily absorbed in the body and is found in meat, seafood and poultry.
Non-heme iron is not absorbed as well in the body and is found in plant foods including dried beans/peas/lentils, oatmeal, fortified grains, tofu, tempeh, spinach, beets and asparagus. Vegetarian and vegan diets therefore need almost 2x the amount of iron in their diets since non-heme iron is not well absorbed, and heme-iron is found in animal products (hense why the doctor told me to eat more meat).
How To Get Enough Iron Without Having to Increase Your Meat
- Eat a variety of non-heme iron rich foods daily – dried beans/peas and lentils (cooked), spinach, tofu, stewed tomatoes, broccoli, pistachio nuts, fortified grains and cereals, beets, beet greens
- Include Vitamin C – ascorbic acid (vitamin c) enhanced the absorption of iron in your body. Try combining your non-heme iron food sources with vitamin c rich foods (kiwi, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, cauliflower, kale, mango, citrus fruits, broccoli, pineapple).
- Save your coffee or tea for after the meal. Polyphenols found in coffee and tea can decrease the absorption of iron in your body. Try having coffee or tea before or after your meals instead of with your meal.
- Avoid high-calcium supplements with your meal as calcium can also bind to iron and restrict its absorption.
I like to add red peppers to my spinach salad or cook my lentils in a homemade tomato sauce to get a good mix of iron and Vitamin C. The pomegranates in my salad today are also great source of vitamin C and currently in season! Yum! I also made a vegan goat cheese to add to my salad and it is absolutely delicious. Enjoy!