Iron is vital to the production of hemoglobin, which is a protein found in red blood cells and is used to transport oxygen around the body. In simple terms, if you are lacking in iron, you are likely to experience symptoms associated with a lack of oxygen, such as continual tiredness, nausea and dizziness and breathlessness. Iron deficiency is far and away the most common cause of low hemoglobin levels, otherwise known as anemia.
The amount of iron we need each day depends on our age and lifestyle. As a rough guideline the recommended dietary allowance for adult men is about 9mg per day and for adult women it’s 18mg per day. Menstruating women and pregnant women, however, need much more and those getting their iron from purely plant-based sources should aim to consume about twice as much as the official RDA as this is based on the assumption that people will be getting most of their iron from meat-based sources, which is obviously not the case for vegetarians.
Meat-based iron versus plant-based iron
The meat industry has long emphasized the level of protein and iron found in its products and thereby underlined meat’s credentials as a healthy food. As is frequently the case with marketing, this is both true and somewhat misleading. In and of itself, meat, including red meat, can be a perfectly healthy option, although not if you drench it in fat and salt. It is, however, perfectly possible to get all the nourishment found in meat from other sources and often at a much lower cost. For the most part, the vitamins in minerals found in meat are absolutely identical to their counterparts in plant-based sources, but iron is the exception to the rule. In simple terms, the iron found in meat is more easily digestible than the iron found in plant-base sources, which is why you need to take almost twice the amount of plant-based iron to achieve the standard (meat-based) RDA. Just to be clear, it is perfectly possible to consume a sufficient level of iron through a purely plant-based diet, you just need to be aware of the difference between meat-based iron and plant-based iron.
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Certain medical conditions can make it difficult for the body to absorb iron
Conditions such as Celiac disease and Crohn disease can both make it more difficult for the body to absorb iron. Likewise gastric band surgery and a high calcium intake (for example through antacid medication) can also make it difficult for the body to absorb iron and hence make it necessary for the individual to increase the amount of iron in their diet.
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Calcium and iron
Some research suggests that calcium makes it more difficult for the body to absorb iron. For most people, this fact is probably going to be a minor issue, although people who are in the habit of drinking milk with their meals may wish to change their habit. Vegetarians, however, should be aware of this as it limits the usefulness of dairy produce as a source of iron.
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What to do if you experience symptoms of iron deficiency
There are a couple of options here. If you are generally healthy and you are only experiencing mild symptoms then you may simply wish to try increasing the amount of iron in your diet and seeing if your symptoms go away or you could go to your doctor. Your doctor may ask you to provide a blood sample for analysis.
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Treating iron deficiency
Obviously the basic premise behind any treatment for iron deficiency is to get more iron into the body, but the exact approach taken may depend on the reason why you are deficient. Basically, iron deficiency can be caused by:
- Insufficient intake of iron
- Increased demand for iron
- Inability to process iron effectively
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Insufficient intake of iron
Eating out, ordering out, ready meals and other convenience foods are all part and parcel of modern life and if we’re honest, we’ve nothing against them as such, but they limit the control we have over what, exactly, we put into our bodies. It’s also becoming increasingly difficult for people to stick to the long-standing advice of eating three meals a day and avoiding snacking in between. This in itself isn’t necessarily bad or a problem, but it can lead to bad habits and health problems, unless people learn how to manage their nutritional intake effectively.
Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail
In this day and age of hectic lives and continual time pressure, it’s more important than ever to be organized when it comes to your nutrition. Making sure you have what you need to prepare nutritious meals, no matter how many of them you eat and at what time of day, is the key to getting sufficient nutrients in your diet, including iron. You can find a list of affordable, iron-rich foods for meat lovers and vegetarians, here and we’d like to suggest some practical ways you can easily incorporate them into your diet.
NB: In addition to eating iron-rich foods and avoiding eating calcium (or at least large quantities of calcium) at the same time, you may find it helpful to increase your intake of vitamin C, as this is believed to assist with iron absorption. This could be particularly helpful for vegetarians and vegans, who need to consume more iron than meat eaters to compensate for the fact that iron from plant-based sources is less easy to digest.
If you’re tempted to skip breakfast, don’t. It sets you up for the day. If you’re a cereal person, consider having your cereal with fruit juice rather than milk. We appreciate this might seem an odd suggestion, but some people really love it (admittedly others don’t but at least give it a go). This will stop the calcium in dairy produce from interfering with your body’s absorption of iron, plus if you opt for orange juice, or another juice with lots of vitamin C, it will actually help with iron absorption. If you’re open to alternative to cereal, wholegrain bread with baked beans, eggs or peanut butter will give you your first iron of the day, particularly if you drink some orange juice with it.
NB: it can actually be unhealthy to drink orange juice or other fruit juices on their own because they contain all the natural sugar found in fruit but very little of the fibre which helps to make us feel full. Drinking orange juice as part of a meal is much better because then the fibre (and protein) in a well-balanced meal helps to make us feel full.
Lunch and dinner
If you’re a meat eater, then a slow cooker could be a really good investment. This will allow you to buy cheap cuts of red meat and cook them, slowly, so that they are tender and full of flavour - and iron. These days, many slow cookers have a timer function so you can have them switch on automatically and come back to a hot meal. Alternatively, you could prepare the meat ahead and then pop it in the freezer, ready to defrost when you want to eat.
If you eat poultry, then while more turkey may be the last thing on your mind after Thanksgiving and Christmas, it could be well worth you keeping your eye open for frozen (or freezable) turkey on sale afterwards, as it is an excellent source of iron, turkey leg meat is particularly good.
If you eat fish, then stock up on canned fish, which can be added easily to many meals without you needing to cook it.
For vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, potatoes are a great choice to go with meals because they provide both iron and vitamin C (and fibre) at a very affordable price. You can shorten their cooking time by cutting them into small pieces and for the absolute best nutritional value, leave the skins on, even if you’re mashing them.
Likewise ready-soaked legumes are an easy and affordable way to add both iron and protein to any meal. You can buy canned legumes very cheaply. In fact baked beans are possibly the cheapest and healthiest food product there is. Alternatively you can just buy packets of dried legumes and soak them yourself, ready for when you need them.
It’s also worth noting that frozen and canned vegetables have the same nutritional benefits as fresh ones, so if you find it hard to get to the shops regularly for fresh vegetables, or you find you’re too busy or tired to prepare them, then frozen or canned ones could be your answer.
Standard health advice used to be to avoid snacking and it’s true that many snack foods are bad news health-wise, but sometimes you genuinely do feel hungry between meals, in which case, it’s a good idea to have some healthy snack on hand. Nuts and seeds are perfect for this, since they can be easily carried and the fact that they are full of protein as well as iron means that they do a great job of satisfying hunger pangs quickly. If we had to pick out one, super-healthy option, it would be chia seeds, but unless you live very close to a health food shop, you’re probably going to have to order them online. If you get caught short and need to buy something at a regular store, peanuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds are all widely available and are also good choices.
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Increased demand for iron
As previously mentioned, there are times in our lives when we have a particular need for iron, pregnancy and menstruation being the obvious ones. Growth spurts are another. If you’re happy that you’re eating a healthy diet with plenty of iron, then it may be simplest and most convenient just to take an iron supplement when you need it, rather than to try to make major changes to your diet and lifestyle. These days supplements come in all kinds of forms, the most common being tablets, capsules and liquids. Tablets are usually the most economical and you may be surprised by how easy they are to swallow these days. Capsules tend to be more expensive, but some people prefer them because they find that they slip down more easily than tablets. The last option is liquids, which are normally the most expensive and the most challenging to store (due to the risk of spillage), but they do, literally, just glide down and also come in a variety of flavours, some of which can be very tasty.
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Inability to process iron effectively
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, then it is crucial that you realize that you must consume a much greater quantity of plant-based iron than your official RDA would suggest because the body processes plant-based iron much less effectively than meat-based iron. In principle, it is entirely possible for vegetarians and vegans to get all the iron they need from plant-based food sources, but in the short term, it may be helpful to take a supplement until you resolve your dietary issues.
If you have a medical condition which inhibits your ability to process iron, for example Celiac disease or Crohn disease, then we would strongly recommend you take expert advice from a doctor. Depending on your personal situation, you may be able to resolve the matter by increasing your dietary intake or iron, but it may also turn out to be the case that you need an iron supplement and/or further medication for your underlying condition. If you only have mild iron deficiency and you are taking antacid medication, then you may be able to improve the way your body processes iron by simply switching to a medication without calcium.
NB: blood loss of any sort can deplete iron levels and so if you need surgery of any kind, it may be worth speaking to your doctor about whether or not your should take an iron supplement immediately afterwards. This is particularly true of gastric band surgery.