One of the most common concerns of the vegetarian diet is obtaining the proper amount of iron in the diet. This has been popularized by the belief that meat contains high levels of iron, while vegetarian sources are low and are not absorbed properly. There is some truth to this, but we need to take a closer look at the facts to make an informed decision on how – and if – we should supplement our vegetarian diet.
Iron Functions and Types
Iron’s main use in the body is to help create hemoglobin in red blood cells, which are responsible for transporting oxygen around the body. It is also utilized by cells to create certain proteins, neurotransmitters, and is a necessary component in the immune system.
There are two types of iron that the body regularly ingests: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is only found in animal protein, composing roughly 40% of all iron present in meats. Non-heme iron composes the rest of the iron in meat, and is the only type of iron offered by plant-based foods. Heme (the same heme in hemoglobin) is more readily absorbed by the body, retaining 20% of what is ingested by the body. Non-heme iron is absorbed at rates ranging between 2% – 20%, making it less effective as a source of iron.
How the body absorbs this iron depends on the current levels of iron in the blood. If you have sufficient iron levels, the body will absorb less. If you have lower levels of iron, then the body will increase its rate of absorption. Iron is difficult for the body to shed once it has been absorbed, so the only way to lower levels is for the body to use it in everyday functions. In this way, the body regulates its own iron absorption. Having proper levels of iron in the blood is not so much about how much iron is consumed, but rather what your current levels are and what type is being consumed.
What you eat iron with will also affect iron levels. Vitamin C, for instance, make non-heme iron available for absorption in much higher levels – as much as twenty times as great. This only applies when they are eaten at the same meal, though, rather than separately throughout the day. On the other hand, high calcium intake can negatively affect the absorption of iron by the blood.
Iron Deficiency and Vegetarian Diet
The daily recommended intake of iron is 14mgs for men and post-menopausal women, and 33mgs for pre-menopausal women.
Although levels of iron are typically lower in vegetarians, iron deficiency affects just as many omnivorous people as it does vegetarians. The lower levels are most likely linked to the fact that vegetarians mostly consume non-heme iron, which, as previously mentioned, is more difficult for the body to absorb. The general consensus is that even if iron levels are low, but still fall within normal level, the blood can carry on with its normal functions just fine.
That said, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States, and is a major problem around the world. Iron deficiency symptoms include:
- · Depression
- · Chronic Fatigue
- · Inability to concentrate
- · Hair loss
- · Brittle nails
- · Headaches
- · Pica (strong desire to eat non-nutritional foods, such as clay, soil, paint chips, etc.)
Iron deficiency is most prevalent in young children and women. Menstrual women tend to lose about 50% more iron than men, depending on how heavy a particular menstrual cycle is. Young children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years are also predisposed to iron deficiency, and are much more susceptible to permanent developmental damage, as a result. Effects can range from inhibited growth, behavioral impediments, and adversely affect brain development.
All scary symptoms aside, vegetarians and vegans have the same statistical risk of becoming iron deficient as their omnivorous counterparts. In the journal Nutrition In Clinical Practice, a study called “Nutrition Concerns and Health Effects of Vegetarian Diets” asserts that, “The nutrients of concern in the diet of vegetarians include vitamin B(12), vitamin D, ω-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc.” It goes on to say that, “Although a vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients, the use of supplements and fortified foods provides a useful shield against deficiency.”
Iron Sources in the Vegetarian Diet
Here is a list of some foods that have high levels of iron present in them:
|Food ||Serving ||% DV |
|Tofu ||4 oz. ||33.8% |
|Swiss Chard||1 cup||22%|
|Thyme, dried||2 tsp||19.8%|
|Shiitake Mushrooms||8 oz.||19.9%|
|Green Beans||1 cup||8.9%|
|Brussel Sprouts||1 cup||10.4%|
|Soy Beans||1 cup||49.1%|
Being conscious of the amount of iron in your vegetarian diet is a healthy way to make sure you get the proper amounts to feel good and healthy. Iron deficiency should not particularly concern you if you have a diet high in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables – if you do, your iron levels will take care of themselves. If you are experiencing some iron deficiency symptoms and are concerned about your iron level, seek a doctor for consultation and have a blood test done. Or, if your simply worried about your iron levels, consult a certified nutritionist to make a menu that will best serve you.