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Do Vegetarians Get Enough Iron?

Do Vegetarians Get Enough Iron?

Spinach is a green that is often a good source of iron for vegetarians.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs | Vegetarian Times

Q: Does a vegetarian diet give me the iron I need?

A: Yes and no. Now, you are right to worry about getting enough iron. It’s an extremely important mineral that’s present in all cells and is essential for transporting oxygen through your body. But although it’s true that red meat is high in iron, the mineral is also available in a slew of plant foods. In fact, it’s so prevalent in vegetarian diets—from soybeans to enriched cereals—that many studies have documented that vegetarians actually get as much iron as meat eaters do.

For instance, research published as far back as 1999 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no significant difference in the average daily iron intake of vegetarians versus omnivores. However, don’t relax quite yet. The amount of iron you eat is not the same as the amount of iron your body stores, and that’s the measurement that really matters. And despite a relatively high dietary iron intake, vegetarians tend to store low levels of it. Here’s why.

First, the type of iron that’s found in grains and vegetables, called nonheme, is not absorbed by the body as well as heme, the iron found in meat. This means that even though vegetarians might be eating decent amounts of iron, their bodies can’t process it very well, so it takes more nonheme iron to maintain normal iron stores.

Second, vegetarian food may actually work against you. Some components of vegetarian staples can actually hinder the absorption of nonheme iron. For example, a substance called phytate, found in whole grains and legumes, can limit iron absorption. Even soy, which is a good vegetarian source of iron, contains phytate and certain proteins that interfere with iron absorption. Other foods that obstruct iron absorption include coffee, tea (including some herbal teas), cocoa, calcium, fiber and some spices.