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This essential mineral is commonly associated with meat—here’s how to get enough of it if you go plant-based.

Jenny McCoy
November 02, 2018

If you’re a first-time vegetarian—or toying with the idea of going meatless—you’ve probably asked yourself the obvious: how will I get enough protein? Yet there’s another essential nutrient that should be on your radar: iron. This mineral, commonly associated with meat, regulates several important systems in the body.

The good news is that you can still get plenty of iron with a vegetarian diet, says Sunit Srivastava, MD, who specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics at Florida-based Legacy Health Medical Group, LLC. You just need to be a little more cognizant of what you’re eating. Here, what you need to know about iron, why it’s important to consume, which foods contain it, and how plant-based eaters can ensure they’re getting enough.

Why is iron important, and how much do we need?

Without iron, “many systems of the human body simply don't function as they should,” says New York-based registered dietitian Maya Feller. The mineral transports oxygen through the bloodstream and is also essential for energy production, normal growth and development, and synthesis for certain hormones, she explains. On top of that, iron plays a role in immune system regulation and can help kill viruses, bacteria, and parasitic infections, adds Srivastava. Our bodies can’t produce iron on their own, explains Srivastava, which is why it’s important to get this mineral by consuming iron-rich foods.

When it comes to dietary sources of iron, there are two types, says Feller. The first is heme iron, which is easily absorbed by the body. Heme iron comes from animal products, including meat, eggs, dairy, fish, shellfish, and poultry. The second is non-heme iron, which isn’t as easy for your body to absorb. This comes from plant sources, including beans, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, as well as fortified cereals. The good news: consuming vitamin C alongside non-heme iron can increase your body’s absorption of the iron.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the recommended dietary allowance of iron varies based on sex and age. Females between 19 to 50 should consume about 18 milligrams (mg) a day, males in the same age range should aim for 8 mg, and all people over 51 should aim for 8 mg. Pregnant women should aim for 27 mg.

What are the main causes and symptoms of an iron deficiency?

An iron deficiency caused by diet alone is unlikely in the U.S., says Srivastava. Vegetarians are at a higher risk, though “it’s not terribly common,” he says. More likely causes include pregnancy, frequent blood donation, certain gastrointestinal disorders (like celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s), and gastrointestinal surgeries, according to the NIH.

In some cases, too little iron can result in anemia, a condition where the blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells, though in general, people who do have deficiencies typically don’t show any symptoms.

Symptoms, when they do occur, are similar to those of a B12 deficiency, and include fatigue, lethargy and overall malaise, says Srivastava. One symptom unique to iron deficiency is a strong craving to chew ice. “It’s not yet understood why iron deficiency can cause this,” he says.

Which foods contain iron? What are the best meat-free options?

As mentioned, iron is typically associated with meat. Red meat, poultry, pork and seafood are all good sources of the mineral. That said, there are plenty of vegetarian sources of iron. Here are your best bets:

Dark chocolate: If you need another excuse to eat this rich treat, let it be this: just 3 ounces will deliver 6.9 mg of iron. Snack on a few squares, or if you’re feeling fancy, make this Chocolate Bark with Caramelized Quinoa.

  • White beans: One cup provides a generous 6.6 mg of iron. Pair these mild-tasting beans with other good-for-you flavors in this Sweet Potato and White Bean Soup or this Lemony White Bean and Arugula Salad.

  • Tofu: Get your protein and iron in one bite—a half cup of this bean curd block will provide 3.3 mg of the mineral. Here are some delicious tofu-centric recipes to get you started.

  • Lentils: Another great bet for iron, just a half cup of these protein-packed pulses (cooked) provides 3.3 mg. Try them in this Curried Lentil and Vegetable Stew.

  • Spinach: This leafy vegetable packs 3 mg of iron per half cup (cooked). It’s also high in vitamin C, which will increase your body’s absorption of iron. Other dark greens, like kale, Swiss chard and collard, have high amounts of the mineral as well. Check out these spinach recipes for inspiration.

  • Fortified breakfast cereals: A single serving of certain iron-fortified cereals, like Kellogg’s All-Bran Complete Wheat Flakes, can deliver all of your iron needs for the day. Just make sure you get a low-sugar option to keep the meal healthy.

    Pair any of the above foods with vitamin C-rich eats—like bell peppers, kale, parsley, lemon, broccoli, kiwis, strawberries, and oranges—to help your body better absorb the iron.

    What about iron supplements?

    The majority of Americans—including vegetarians—can get enough iron from diet alone. And our philosophy at Cooking Light is that it’s great to get your vitamins and minerals from whole foods—yet that isn’t always feasible.

    In some cases, an iron supplement is needed to ensure adequate intake. Though you can buy over-the-counter iron supplements online or at your local pharmacy, your best bet may be to get a prescribed supplement from your doctor, says Srivastava, as there is little regulation in the supplement industry. He or she may advise you to take the supplement alongside vitamin C, which as mentioned, helps your body better absorb the iron, and to avoid taking it with calcium, caffeine or antacids, as they will compete for absorption, says Feller. In any case, check with your doc before starting a new medication (even if it’s OTC), since interactions with other medications can occur.

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