Iron from meatless diets

When it comes to meatless diets and children, parents worry about protein and iron.  Both are legitimate concerns, and iron is especially critical for growing teens and children and women of child bearing age.  Iron is essential for red blood cell formation and function.  Meat is one of the top sources of dietary iron.  The iron in meat comes in a well-absorbed form.  What happens when you cut that out?  It’s a concern for vegetarians and vegans alike, because dairy products are not good iron sources.  Eggs have some iron, but you’d have to eat a whole lot of eggs — about 30 — to get the 18 mg of iron recommended for an adult female.

The good news is that there’s plenty of iron to be found in plant-based foods, if you know where to look.  Some especially good sources include:

  • raisins and currants
  • cooked beans: black, pinto, black-eyed peas, kidney, etc
  • potatoes
  • asparagus
  • tomato, canned, raw, sauces
  • spinach and other greens
  • tofu
  • peas
  • whole grains
  • beets
  • black berries and blueberries
  • sunflower seeds and other nuts

A cup of cooked black beans has about 5.3 mg of iron.  By comparison, 3 ounces of cooked lean ground beef has 2.4 mg.  So clearly plant foods can be good sources of iron.  The key difference is the form of that iron.  The form in meats is heme, while the form in plants are complex molecules like ferritin.  New research suggests absorption of the iron found in plant foods depends on a very different mechanism from heme iron absorption.  In other words, humans can consume and absorb enough iron from a plant-based diet, assuming iron-rich foods are eaten frequently.

Vegans and vegetarians have several other very significant sources of iron available, including ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, whole grains and any food made with fortified flour.  That means bread, pasta, pancakes, tortillas and other wheat flour products are iron sources.  Many energy and meal bars are also fortified with iron.

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One more novel iron source: cast iron pans.  If you cook on cast iron, a little iron can leach into the food, adding iron to your diet.

The important point is this: if you are vegetarian or vegan, you don’t necessarily need an iron supplement.  You might be doing just fine getting iron from food.  Women with especially heavy menstrual periods need to pay attention to their iron status, and be checked by a doctor.  But unless you’ve been tested and identified as iron-deficient, you don’t need extra iron.

We need enough iron.  Excess does nothing for stamina or fitness or general health.  Sports supplements or foods that tour iron content to boost sports performance will not help if you aren’t deficient.  In fact, excess iron can be a problem for some people.  Hemochromatosis, or iron storage disease, causes toxic build-up of iron in tissues, causing damage and possible organ failure.  People with this disease must limit intake of high iron foods and iron supplements; they also avoid cooking on cast iron.

For vegetarians, a daily menu that includes eggs, greens, cooked beans, bread or other flour-based foods, potatoes, tofu and nuts can add up to an adequate iron intake.  The National Library of Medicine has more detailed information about iron and health here.

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