by Stella Budrikis
One of the first questions people will ask if you
decide to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet is "How will you get
enough iron?" After all, meat is the prime source of iron in most
westerners' diets. Our bodies need iron to make the red pigment, haemoglobin,
which carries oxygen in our blood to where it is needed. Iron is also used to form myoglobin, a muscle protein, and is found in a number of
enzymes involved in energy production.
A shortage iron in our diets results in anaemia. Lethargy, breathlessness,
irritability, poor concentration, abnormal sensations such as "pins
and needles", sore tongue and of course, looking pale are all symptoms
of anaemia. Teenage girls, pregnant women and nursing mothers are especially
prone to developing anaemia because of their increased need for iron.
Women who have very heavy periods may also develop a shortage of iron.
Lack of iron in a baby or toddler's diet can have a long term effect
on their physical and intellectual development. Breast-fed babies over
the age of six months who are not introduced to solids can become iron
deficient. So can those whose diet consists mostly of cow's milk. The
evidence from reputable scientific studies is that a carefully selected,
well balanced vegetarian diet can supply all the normal iron requirements.
How do you ensure that your iron intake is adequate? Here are ten ways
of adding iron to a vegetarian diet.
1. Include plenty of beans, peas and lentils
Dried pulses such as adzuki beans, kidney beans, chick peas, red and
green lentils, and soy beans are not only a great source of protein,
they also contain significant amounts of iron. Don't forget products
made from pulses - tofu and tempeh for instance. Soy flour and chickpea
flour (besan) can be added to cakes, sauces, casseroles, pancakes and
other dishes to boost their iron and protein content.
2. Eat up your greens.
Popeye used spinach to build up his muscles. You can too, but buy it
fresh or frozen, not canned. Boiling green vegetables reduces their
iron content, so cook them lightly, or use them in salads. Silver beet
contains as much iron as spinach. Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, green cabbage,
Asian greens, endive and kale have smaller but still useful amounts
3. Nibble on nuts.
Nuts such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts, brazil nuts and cashews are
good sources of iron. So too are pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
Use them as a snack, or add them to main meals and desserts.
4. Fill up on cereals and pasta.
Most whole-grain cereals and flours contain some iron. Removing the
bran from rice and other cereals reduces their iron content, but even
refined cereals such as white rice still have useful amounts.
Pasta, particularly if it is of the wholemeal variety, will also add
iron to your diet.
5. Crack an egg.
Unless you are following a vegan diet or have to avoid eggs for some
other reason, you can use eggs to add both iron and vitamin B12 to your
diet. (Vitamin B12 deficiency is another cause of anaemia.) Many dieticians
allow 3 to 4 eggs per week even in a low cholesterol diet. If you don't
like eggs boiled or scrambled, add them to rissoles, pancakes, desserts
and other dishes.
6. Read the label.
Many prepackaged foods have iron added to them. These include breakfast
cereals, breads, soy milks, powdered drinks and yeast spreads. If you
have a choice, choose one with added iron.
7. Think Vitamin C.
Iron from plants is not as well absorbed by our bodies as iron from
meat. Some plants also contain substances called phytates which interfere
with iron absorption. However, if you eat vitamin C at the same meal,
more of the iron can be utilised.
It's a good idea to include a source of vitamin C with every meal -
tomatoes, capsi*****, oranges, strawberries, kiwi fruit, pineapple and
many other fruits are good sources.
Prolonged cooking destroys vitamin C, but stir-frying and microwaving
food has less effect. Frozen and canned fruits retain most of their
8. Forget the cuppa.
Tannic acid, found in tea, reduces iron absorption if taken at the same
food. Drink low-tannin teas, or at least avoid having a cup of tea with
9. Consider a supplement.
If you are pregnant, or breast feeding, you may find it difficult to
get enough iron from your diet alone. Some obstetricians routinely prescribe
an iron supplement to all pregnant women. Others prefer to give supplements
only to those who show evidence of iron deficiency.
Iron tablets can cause nausea and constipation in some people, although
taking them with food can reduce this. Excessive iron intake can be
dangerous, so don't be tempted to use iron tablets prescribed for another
person, and keep any iron tablets well out of children's reach. If you
think that you may be suffering from anaemia, see your doctor or a qualified
10. Good news for chocaholics!
Chocolate and cocoa contain small but significant amounts of iron. Their
fat content works against them becoming a major part of our diets, but
in moderation there's no reason not to enjoy them.
Copyright © by The Australian Vegetarian Society All Right Reserved.