Are you a vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian? What’s a flexitarian, you ask? According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary that officially listed the word in 2012, a flexitarian is “one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish”, in other words, a semi-vegetarian!
With an estimated 4% of Canadians living a vegetarian lifestyle, as many as 40% of North Americans living a flexitarian lifestyle, and an unknown (but growing) number of people following vegan diets, iron deficiency in these groups is worth a mention – allow me to explain why…
Increased Risk of Iron Deficiency
Iron is more readily available to be absorbed from meat (heme iron) than from plant-derived foods (non-heme iron). But more importantly, you should recognize that meat and fish also enhance the absorption of non-heme iron. So, for those who drastically limit their meat intake, this not only means that heme iron is omitted from their diet, but non-heme iron absorption is also reduced, putting them at risk for developing iron deficiency. According to the Dietary Reference Intakes for Iron (2001), the absorption of non-heme iron is 16.8% compared to 25% percent for heme iron.
For women and children who follow vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian diets, the risk of developing iron deficiency is even higher. In women, blood loss from menstruation and an increased need for iron in pregnancy both heighten the risk, while rapid growth spurts increase a child’s risk.
What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk
Fortunately, there are ways to lower the risk of iron deficiency when you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. For starters, you could increase the amount of iron-rich foods you eat. It is estimated that the bioavailability of iron from a vegetarian diet is approximately 10%, rather than the 18% from a mixed Western diet; this means that the requirement for iron is 1.8 times higher for vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians. Some of the best non-meat sources of iron include:
- Regular instant oatmeal (4 mg of iron / 1 packet; 186 g serving) or apple-cinnamon instant oatmeal (5 mg of iron / 1 packet; 186 g serving);
- Boiled spinach (3.4 mg of iron / 95 g serving);
- Tofu (2.4 mg of iron / 150 g serving);
- Boiled soybeans (6.5 mg of iron / 127 g serving);
- Boiled and salted lentils (4.9 mg of iron / 146 g serving);
- Dried pumpkin and squash seeds (5.2 mg of iron / 35 g serving);
- Blackstrap molasses (1 mg of iron / 21 g serving) – though I’m not sure how much molasses you could incorporate into your everyday diet!
Along with eating more foods rich in iron, you want to get the most out of those foods by not interfering with your body’s ability to actually absorb the iron! You can do this by limiting or avoiding absorption inhibitors (such as coffee, tea, chocolate, and heartburn medications, along with foods high in calcium – including calcium supplements) when consuming your iron-rich meals. Try consuming these foods at least two hours before or after meals.
Adding an oral iron supplement to your diet can also help keep your iron levels up to prevent or treat iron deficiency. There are oral iron supplements available that do not contain animal by-products (make sure to read the labels closely).
Content and advice provided on The Iron Maiden is for information purposes only and should not serve as a substitute for a licensed health care provider, who is knowledgeable about an individual’s unique health care needs