Choosing to be vegetarian and preventing iron deficiency requires considered food choices. A concerted effort to plan adequate intake on a daily basis is rewarded with an improvement in iron storage. Iron supplementation or iron infusions can be avoided with correct food choices. So how does a vegetarian maintain adequate iron in the diet?
Iron is found in all cells of the human body. It carries oxygen to all the muscles, organs and tissues in the body. Too little iron could interfere with this vital function and cause disease or death.
There are two forms of iron found in food – haem iron and non-haem iron. Most plant foods that contain iron have the non-haem form, which is not absorbed as easily. Haem iron is most commonly found in meat and is more readily absorbed.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies. When the bodies iron stores are depleted, the body is unable to sustain the correct haemoglobin levels required, and it malfunctions. Haemoglobin is the iron-containing oxygen transport in red blood cells.
This is called iron deficiency anaemia and is common in vegetarians and children, especially females. Symptoms of iron deficiency often occur before the condition has progressed to iron deficiency anaemia. Symptoms can include weakness, dizziness, restless leg syndrome, hair loss, fatigue and shortness of breath.
If diagnosed with anaemia, the condition can be treated with iron supplements. Avoiding iron deficiency is possible for vegetarians by eating iron-rich foods daily like seeds, nuts, eggs, green leafy vegetables, legumes and tofu.
Vitamin C has been shown to enhance the absorption of iron, so add vitamin C to iron-rich meals using for example citrus fruits, tomatoes, capsicum or broccoli. Vegetarians and people with iron deficiency should avoid drinking tea, coffee or cola at meal times, as the tannic acid in these can inhibit iron absorption.