“That’s Because You Don’t Eat Meat”: Tips for Iron-Deficient Vegetarians

When I told my coach that as suspected, I was indeed anemic, he answered: “That’s good!” I must have looked at him with a puzzled face, because he elaborated, “First of all, it is something you can solve easily by taking iron pills; secondly, your fitness level hasn’t declined, and as soon as your iron has been restored you’ll be back at your level.”

He is probably right, but I can attest that anemia can make your life quite miserable. Plus, I don’t like to supplement my diet. I want to be able to keep my levels up without having to resort to pills or ditch my plant-based diet.

If you, like me, eat a vegetarian diet and have been struggling with low iron you are probably familiar with the that’s-because-you-don’t-eat-meat comment. However, for most people it is possible to get enough iron on a vegetarian diet, while others (including me) end up being anemic even if they do eat meat. Here are my tips for vegetarians (and meat-eaters as well) with anemia.

1.Eat lots of legumes, seeds and greens

Greens are a good source of non-heme iron.

Greens are a good source of non-heme iron.

While our body absorbs iron from animal products – so-called heme iron – more easily than plant-based or non-heme iron, it is possible to get enough iron from plant-based sources alone. In fact, even omnivorous people get most iron from plants, unless they eat steak every single day perhaps. Good plant sources of iron are beans and tofu, pumpkin and sesame seeds, dried apricot and fortified cereals. Greens, such as rocket, spinach and broccoli also have decent amounts.

2. Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C

Rich in vitamin C, tomatoes pair well with iron-rich foods.

Rich in vitamin C, tomatoes and bell pepper pair well with iron-rich foods.

Non-heme iron is better absorbed in our bodies when combined with vitamin C. So next time you eat leafy greens or anything else with iron, chop up a tomato or bell pepper, have a glass of orange juice, or eat a piece of fruit rich in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits or kiwi).

3. Avoid calcium when eating iron

Just as vitamin C aids iron absorption, calcium inhibits it. While it is not always possible to avoid calcium completely and many foods are rich in both iron and calcium (broccoli or sesame seeds, anyone?) try to avoid calcium as much as possible if you want to boost your iron stores. In other words, have your iron-fortified morning cereals with orange juice rather than milk, and forego the grated cheese next time you eat pasta.

4. Avoid coffee and tea during or right after a meal 

No matter how delicious, it's best to avoid tea right after a meal.

No matter how delicious, it’s best to avoid tea right after a meal.

Calcium is not the only thing that blocks iron absorption; coffee and tea are other culprits. I know it is tempting to finish off a good meal with a cuppa coffee or tea, but it’s better to wait at least one hour before drinking these. Coffee and black tea diminish iron absorption most, but green tea to a lesser extent as well. Can’t live without your morning tea while having breakfast? Try herbal or South African rooibos tea.

5. Have your levels checked regularly and supplement if necessary

This isn’t the first time I am anemic, and when visiting my GP I asked him what I could do to keep my iron levels up, given that I already follow tips 1 to 4. He answered that some people just cannot get (or absorb) enough iron from their diet alone and need to keep supplementing it, or else their levels drop. He didn’t think this was a bad thing and certainly not an argument to start eating meat again. I guess I will continue supplementing my diet with some iron once I finish my iron pills. That said, it is recommended to have your blood tested regularly, as too much iron can harm the body as well. Besides, it is good to see whether your anemia is caused by a lack of iron or if you are deficient in another vitamin, such as folate or vitamin B12. Especially if you follow a (largely) plant-based diet your vitamin B12 levels may be low.

Within a few days of taking an iron supplement I already started noticing the difference, but it is important to keep taking the pills for as long as they have been prescribed by your GP, as it takes a while to build up your stores. Also, if you suspect being anemic visit your GP to rule out any diseases that could cause this, such as bleedings, celiac disease or ulcers.

5 thoughts on ““That’s Because You Don’t Eat Meat”: Tips for Iron-Deficient Vegetarians

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article! And its absolutely true – if somebody has the disposition of Anemia, they will even be anemic, even if they do eat meat! Go on and feel good!

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