What about my iron levels if I don’t eat meat?

“Where will I get my iron if I don’t eat meat?” This is a common concern for anyone considering cutting down on meat or becoming vegetarian: after all, we’re constantly told that meat is the best source of iron. But there are other good sources of iron: in fact, most iron in the Australian diet comes from cereals and cereal products, including wholegrains and iron-fortified cereals.

Since the National Nutrition Survey in the 1990s, and more recently the Australian Health Survey, we’ve known that about 40% of our iron comes from core cereal foods and only about 20% from meat sources. So perhaps cutting down on meat isn’t such a concern after all. And research over the years has shown that vegetarians who eat a variety of plant foods are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency than people who eat meat.

Apart from wholegrains like wheat, quinoa and amaranth, where else can we find iron in the plant kingdom? Some of the best sources are legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and green leafy vegetables. Eating a variety of these foods each day can be enough to maintain our body’s iron stores, known as ferritin levels. We need iron to form haemoglobin and myoglobin, important carriers of oxygen in our blood and muscles. Without it we will feel tired, weak and be more prone to infection.

As with most nutrients, too little iron in the diet is not good, but too much can be worse. It’s possible to store too much iron, particularly if we eat large quantities of meat, as our body doesn’t have an efficient way to get rid of too much iron. Vegetarians get only what they need, as they need it. In other words, if iron stores are low, our body will absorb more from plant foods. This is unlike iron from meat, which is absorbed whether we need it or not. Also, when demand is higher, for example during pregnancy, we will absorb more iron from plant sources.

Since vegetarians tend to store less iron, this may be one reason for their lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer. Heavy meat eaters are at higher risk of these conditions. This is partly due to the iron in meat, which is a pro-oxidant that can damage cells, unlike the iron from plant foods.

Iron from plant foods is also more easily absorbed when we eat vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables with the iron-rich plant foods.  For example, you can put strawberries (rich in vitamin C) on your Weet-Bix (iron-fortified wholegrain cereal) in the mornings, or drink a small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice with your meal. It’s not difficult to include vitamin C-rich foods when eating plenty of fruits and vegetables as part of an healthy diet.

Try these iron-rich recipes

Tofu vegetable stack with lemon herb sauce
Greek style butter beans with rocket
Cinnamon muesli
Bean nachos