Iron deficiency is a type of anaemia – in fact, it is actually the most common type of anaemia worldwide.1
Our bodies need iron in order to make new red blood cells, which then carry oxygen around the body.2
And whilst liver and red meat are known to be good sources of iron, they are clearly not suitable for those on a vegetarian diet.
So if you follow a vegetarian lifestyle, how much risk are you of having low levels of iron? And what can you do to ensure you get enough iron in your diet?
What causes iron deficiency?
As the name suggests, iron deficiency is a lack of iron, but this is not always due to too little iron in your diet.
However, tackling your iron intake is important if you are deficient, since your body cannot make iron on its own.3
Your body’s iron requirements may change over time, and the cause of iron deficiency may be due to changes in your body.
This is why women are sometimes more susceptible to iron deficiency due to heavy periods, and other conditions. And it is also why blood loss can also lead to iron deficiency.
Changes in diet can be responsible for this lack of iron, so if you are considering switching to a more plant-based diet, then it might be worth seeking out good sources of iron to keep your diet balanced and your iron levels up.
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
There are many symptoms that appear across all types of anaemia, and these include:
- fatigue and lack of energy
- heart palpitations
- pale skin
- shortness of breath
Other less common symptoms that have been linked to iron deficiency include hair loss and headaches.4
If you are worried that you might be suffering from iron deficiency, then get in touch with your GP, who will be able to arrange a simple blood test to check your iron levels.
Should vegetarians worry about iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency is, of course, not a condition that is exclusively experienced by vegetarians or vegans.
However, if you have chosen to exclude red meat from your diet, for whatever reason, then it is important to make sure that your diet contains enough alternatives sources of iron to reduce the risk of any deficiency.
Why should vegetarians eat iron rich food?
While lack of iron is one of the most common concerns people have about a vegetarian diet, iron can be found naturally in a wide variety of foods.
The recommended daily amount of iron is:
- 7mg a day for men over 18
- 8mg a day for women aged 19 to 50
- 7mg a day for women over 505
It is no more important for vegetarians to eat food high in iron than anyone else, but some do find that excluding meat and fish from their diets mean they need to seek out other sources of iron to reach their recommended daily amount.
Your body may absorb iron less well from plant-based foods than from meat,6 and this is due to there being two different types of iron that can be found in your diet:
- haem iron
- non-heam iron
Non-heam iron is the main type found in vegetarian, iron rich food.
What are good sources of iron for vegetarians?
Vegetarian foods rich in iron include soya and soya products, lentils, beans and legumes of course, green leafy veg.
Iron fortified cereal, dried fruits and even dark chocolate are also great sources of iron, especially when washed down with a glass of orange juice. This is because vitamin C actively helps your body absorb and process iron.7
Vegetables which are particularly high in iron include chickpeas, broccoli and spinach.
Many seeds and nuts can also offer an excellent dietary iron boost, especially sesame seeds and sunflower seeds.
For example, did you know that 100g of sesame seeds contains almost four times as much iron as 100g of stewed minced beef?!8
Check out some iron rich vegetarian recipes for ways to increase your iron intake.
As a vegetarian, getting enough nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12 from your diet may take a little more planning than meat-eaters have to do, but once you realise foods containing iron are perhaps more abundant than you first thought, you can focus on those to improve your iron intake if needed.
You might also like iron supplements.
The risks of iron deficiency
As well as the unpleasant symptoms of iron deficiency, such as lethargy and fatigue, there are greater risks if your deficiency is left untreated.
A lack of iron can affect the body’s immune system, so you may become increasingly susceptible to illness and infection, or complications that affect the heart and lungs.9
During pregnancy, iron levels are monitored closely to ensure that some risks before and after birth are reduced.
Keeping your blood and muscles healthy, and your energy levels up are good reasons to maintain healthy iron levels, so see a GP if you have any concerns about a possible iron deficiency.
Last updated: 5 February 2021
Author: Donia Hilal, Nutritionist
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018. Donia has 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.
Donia has a special interest in; weight management, plant-based nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, special diets and disease risk reduction. Donia’s LinkedIn profile