Dr. Neal Pinckney
One of the common beliefs about a vegetarian diet is that it doesn't supply enough iron. Vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than meat eaters. While animal proteins and dairy products do have iron, some plant foods are even richer. Iron deficiency anemia is most commonly found in young women and children who are currently eating red meat, fowl and fish.
Iron is a central part of hemoglobin, carrying oxygen in the blood. It is found in food in two forms, the first type, about 40% of the iron in meat, poultry, and fish, is well absorbed. The other type, 100% of the iron in plant foods and 60% of the iron in animal tissue, is somewhat less well absorbed, when isolated.
Because vegetarians eat the form of iron that is not as well absorbed, it is often believed that they will develop iron deficiency anemia, but that has not proven to be the case. Iron absorption is reduced by some foods. Tannin in tea binds iron in the intestines, decreasing its absorption. Drinking tea between meals or using herbal teas would allow better iron absorption than taking tea with meals. This absorption factor has caused some confusion, but it has proved not to be an important issue for those eating a well balanced vegetarian diet.
Most vegetarian diets are high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which increases iron absorption up to six times. making the absorption of plant-based iron as good or better than animal-based iron. Many vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy are high in iron and in vitamin C, so that the iron in these foods is well absorbed. Beans and tomato sauce or stir-fried tofu and broccoli, common vegetarian combinations, allow generous levels of iron absorption. The iron in plant foods is superior to that derived from animal foods when the amount iron per calorie is considered. Just 100 calories of spinach has as much iron as 340 calories of sirloin steak.
Instead of worrying about not getting enough iron, people with a high heart risk factor should make sure they're not getting too much. Clinical studies have shown that high iron levels may be related to heart disease. Men who take a multi-vitamin daily should be sure that iron is not one of the minerals included. The RDA for iron is 15 milligrams per day for an adult woman. Men and post-menopausal women only need 10 milligrams daily. Click here to view a table showing the iron content of some common foods.