Whether you’re vegetarian or just looking to reduce the amount of red meat in your diet it’s important to make sure your diet still contains the important nutrients you need, including iron. If you haven’t considered eliminating red meat from your diet I highly suggest looking at the recent scientific research showing an increased risk in breast cancer associated with red meat consumption in women. Processed meats of any type have been shown to increase the risk of heat failure and stroke. If you’re going to eat meat, lean meat like chicken and fish are really the best options. Chicken, turkey and tuna (along with other seafood and meats) do contain iron just not as much as beef (the exception to that is chicken liver which is very high in iron).
But if you’re vegetarian you do have to try significantly harder to get enough iron. That is because iron from animal meat is much easier for your body to absorb than iron from plants. Even iron supplements are more difficult for the body to absorb. However there are a few tricks that can help vegetarians avoid iron deficiency. When you’re eating don’t drink tea or coffee, drink a glass of orange juice instead. The vitamin C in the orange juice will help you absorb the iron while tea and coffee will have the opposite effect since they contain polyphenols which bind to iron. Also don’t take a calcium supplement when taking an iron supplement. The calcium will inhibit the iron absorption so if you take both do one in the morning and one at night.
A diet rich in legumes (soy beans, black beans, lentils, etc.) will give you a good source of natural iron plus fiber and protein. Dark green veggies like spinach, broccoli and kale are also a good source of iron and many other nutrients. Some fruits and nuts also contain iron. Personally I am a big fan of trail mix so the other day I did some research to come up with a trail mix that was high in iron. I mixed raisins, almonds, walnuts and dried apricots to make a quick healthy snack.
A half of a cup of this mix contains 11% of your daily iron. It’s also 290 calories with 16.5 grams of fat and 34 grams of carbs. Because of the high fat content it’s something I typically eat in the morning or afternoon when I know I’m going to be the most active.
If you are getting a good amount of iron in your diet but still end up having symptoms of iron deficiency (tiredness being the most notable symptom) make sure to see your doctor. You may just need a stronger iron supplement that your doctor can prescribe or you may have another underlying health issue like a stomach ulcer or celiac disease.