Within the general population, vegetarians often have higher or similar total dietary iron intakes than non-vegetarians. The catch is... they are getting most of their iron in the non-haem form and unfortunately, this type doesn't absorb as well.
DIETARY IRON COMES IN 2 DIFFERENT FORMS...
1. Haem iron: This type is found only in animal foods (e.g. meat, chicken, fish), and is absorbed more efficiently than non-haem iron.
2. Non-haem iron: This type is found in plant foods, as well as animal foods. Non-haem iron is not absorbed as well as haem iron.
To reiterate, because vegetarians get most of their iron from plant-foods, majority of their iron comes in the non-haem form. And because non-haem iron does not absorb as well, vegetarians actually need to consume a whole lot more of it.
Dietary guidelines have set vegetarians recommended daily intake (RDI) for iron to be 1.8 times higher than that for non-vegetarians. Meaning, vegetarians need to be consuming 80% more (non-haem) iron than omnivores. This can get a little tricky, and unless meals and snacks are planned well it can be hard to meet. This in turn can put vegetarians at risk of iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency affects about 25% of the population, making it the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. Those at risk of iron-deficiency include:
Vegetarians and vegans
Especially male and female adolescents
Female endurance athletes
AND SO, DOES THIS MEAN AN IRON SUPPLEMENT IS REQUIRED FOR ALL VEGETARIANS?
For most the answer is NO - When an individuals iron levels are within the normal healthy range, and a variety of plant-foods that achieve (the extra non-haem) iron requirements are consumed... iron supplements are not required.
For some, YES – If iron levels are low and/or extra iron requirements are not being met, an iron supplement will likely be indicated. This is best assessed by your practitioner (Dietitian or GP).
For those on a vegetarian, vegan or plant-based diet, aim to consume your iron rich plant foods with vitamin C rich plant foods. For example, consume legumes or tofu with tomatoes, capsicum or greens. Combining vitamin C and non-haem iron can enhance the irons absorption by more than six fold. Further to this, you can also increase non-haem irons absorption by consuming citrus fruits with your meals. This is due to their citric acid content. Try squeezing lemon juice over your plant-based meals.
Phytic acid found in legumes, grains, nuts and bran can reduce the absorption of your plant-based iron. Aim to soak and/or sprout these foods to reduce their phytate levels before consuming.
Polyphenols found in tea, coffee and red wine can also inhibit the absorption of your non-haem iron. Aim to consume these drinks at least 1 hour away from your plant-based meals.
IRON RICH PLANT FOODS
2mg or more Iron per serve
kidney beans, baked beans, 4bean mix, chickpeas
spinach, swiss chard, parsley
quinoa, amaranth, spelt, sorghum
flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds
1-2mg of Iron per serve
tempeh, soy milk
bok choy, asparagus, green beans, beetroot, silverbeet
sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
almonds, pistachios, cashews