I don’t eat meat – What are the best plant foods to eat to get enough iron?

Although red meat is a source of iron that is easily absorbed by the body, it is still possible to get enough iron from non-meat sources. If you don’t eat meat, it is important to be mindful of the plant foods that can provide iron and how you can help your body absorb the iron from these foods.

Why is iron so important?

Iron is required by your body for making haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. It is also essential for a healthy immune system and maintaining your energy levels. Low iron levels can result in lacking in energy, a shortness of breath, pale skin and being more prone to colds and infections. A more severe lack of iron can lead to iron-deficiency anaemia

Good plant sources of iron

Useful plant sources of iron include:

Legumes such as: kidney beans, chickpeas, butter beans, baked beans and lentils
Green leafy vegetables such as: spinach, kale, watercress, broccoli and Brussel sprouts.
Grains such as: quinoa and wholegrains such as brown rice or wholemeal bread
Dried fruits such as: apricots, figs, and dates
Nuts and seeds such as sesame seeds (or tahini paste made from sesame), pumpkin seeds, ground linseed, chia seeds, almonds and cashew nuts.

Breakfast cereals are often fortified with iron, so can contribute to iron intakes and, for vegetarians, eggs are a useful source of iron.

How to help your body absorb iron from plant sources

The iron found in plant foods is harder for your body to absorb than the iron found in meat. There are a few things you can do to help. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from plant foods. So is a good idea to have foods or drinks rich in vitamin C, such as fruits or vegetables or a small glass of fruit juice, along with iron containing plant foods.

Some polyphenols (plant compounds) such as tannins in tea and coffee can hinder iron absorption so it’s best to avoid these drinks with meals, or wait at least an hour after a meal before drinking a cuppa.

Who is most at risk of low iron intakes?

Women of child-bearing age and teenage girls have higher requirements for iron than men of the same age. Blood loss due to injury or menstrual losses increases iron requirements in the short-term.

Data on nutrient intakes in the UK population show that almost half (49%) of girls aged 11-18 years and a quarter (25%) of women aged 19-64 years have inadequate iron intakes (NDNS, 2020).

It is important to include a variety of foods containing iron in the diet to ensure you get enough of this mineral to meet your needs. 

References

NDNS (National Diet and Nutrition Survey) (2020) NDNS Rolling Programme Years 9 to 11 (2016/2017 to 2018/2019). Public Health England, Food Standards Agency. Available: NDNS: results from years 9 to 11 (2016 to 2017 and 2018 to 2019) – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Author: Laura Wyness, RNutr

Photo Source: Pixabay copyright free – dried apricots and nuts

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