Iron for vegetarians (or anyone who likes plants)

Legumes a good source of iron

One of the more difficult nutrients in a plant based diet is iron, partly because it is more difficult to absorb and partly because women in particular may have higher needs at different stages of their life. In this blog we will look at requirements at different stages, good plant sources and factors that affect absorption.

How much iron do you need ?

Requirements change depending on your age and stage, but also whether there are other stressors which may affect your needs. For women who are having heavy periods extra iron is often needed. For athletes who are doing intensive training they have a higher need for iron as the training stimulates production of red blood cells.

Generally the recommended iron intake for adults is 8mg for men and 18mg for women. For women this increases to 27mg during pregnancy. Post menopausal women drop to 8mg a day the same as men. Babies and toddlers have similar requirements regardless of gender but typically around 8-11mg a day depending on the stage.

Good plant sources of iron

  1. Nuts depending on the type are good sources of iron. Pistachio’s have 14mg of iron per 100g and are about four times higher than almonds, brazil or cashew nuts. Nut butters could be a good way to increase iron in the diet.
  2. Seeds particularly pumpkin, sesame, hemp and flaxseed. Two tablespoons average between 1 – 1.4mg of iron per serve.
  3. Legumes such as beans, peas , chickpeas and soybeans with soybeans topping the list at 8.8mg of iron per cup. Legumes are also an important source of protein for vegetarians so they have multiple benefits.
  4. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, chard and kale often have between 2.5-6mg per cup of cooked vegetables. Included in a dish with legumes it gets easier to meet your recommended intake.
  5. Potatoes but the iron is under the skin so make sure you scrub the skin before cooking and don’t peel it off. A large potato has around 3mg and sweet potato a little less.
  6. Oyster and white mushrooms are good sources, however shitake and portobello have little iron content. The varieties noted above have around 3mg per 100g.
  7. Olives hold around 3mg per 100g .

How do I digest iron easily ?

Most people seem to know that having foods containing Vitamin C at the same time as eating iron sources improves their digestion, leafy green vegetables are a good source of iron as they usually contain both. Other factors which may impact absorption are consuming dairy products or tea at the same time as the iron source.

Dairy products may impact absorption of iron due to the high calcium content, which in some studies has been shown to lower absorption of the iron. This may not be an issue if your levels are adequate as its only reducing absorption however if you are suffering from iron deficiency it might be best to have your capuccino at least 30 minutes away from your meal.

Tea is high in tannins which constrict the mucous membranes lining the stomach. If consumed with meals it may limit your absorption of nutrients such as the non-heme iron from plants significantly, by up to 62% in one study. Again enjoying your tea away from your iron containing meal is probably fine.

Christine Pope is a practicing naturopath and nutritionist who is based at Elemental Health at St Ives. Appointments can be made through the website at www.elementalhealth.net.au or by calling 8084 0081.

Being a good vegetarian

old wooden typesetter box with 16 samples of assorted legumes: gThis week I saw a teen who has become a vegetarian for ethical reasons which is a decision I applaud. On a nutritional level however if you do want to cut out meat its critical to make sure that you do include the right sort of vegetarian proteins in your diet as well as lots of vegetables. The worst vegetarians I see in clinic are usually the ones who don’t like vegetables – chips and tomato sauce or toasted cheese sandwiches are not adequate sources of nutrition!!

So how do you become a good vegetarian? First off lets assume that you love your veggies or if not you had better learn to love them as its going to comprise the bulk of your diet – ideally at least 3 to 4 cups of vegetables a day. Then we need to add some protein sources, eggs, cheese, tofu and legumes are all good options. The egg is in fact the perfect source of protein against which all others are measured. Cheese and dairy foods are great if you can tolerate them, as many adults become lactose intolerant as they age and lactase levels decline. In which case yoghurt may be a better option as the fermentation breaks down the lactose.

Indian vegetable curry with spinach, cauliflower and potatoNext its really about seeking inspiration from cultures that have a wide range of vegetarian foods – Indian curries are a great source of variety and flavour. One of my favourite simple curries – potato, pea and cauliflower I found one day as I was googling recipes with only three ingredients to cook at Taste and its now a firm favourite. Another version of a simple potato curry I found in Stephanie Alexander’s cookbook and then modified to reduce the number of ingredients – if you like it spicy double the curry paste!.

One tablespoon curry paste,
1 tsp each cumin, mustard, ginger and garlic
One onion
2 potatoes
1 piece sweet potato or pumpkin or 2 carrots
2 red capsicum
1 eggplant
2 zucchini
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 can coconut milk
Add a little oil to the pan and a chopped onion plus the spices. Fry the onion in the spices. Add two potatoes, a quarter pumpkin, two red capsicum (scrub potatoes, don’t peel – less work and better for you). Cut all the vegetables about the same size – for instance, in quarters.

Chop and slice salted eggplant and two zucchini. (Before you use eggplant – slice it, pour salt on it and then after 10 minutes scrape it off). Cut into cubes and then stir this through, add a can of chopped tomatoes, cover for 20 minutes, cook on low heat. Check that the potatoes are getting soft. Add a small can of coconut milk and simmer for a further 5 mins before serving.

Variations: add a bunch of spinach (chopped) or Chinese cabbage a few minutes before its finished cooking.Leftovers will make another meal with a tin of legumes or chickpeas added for some variety.

Whilst many people think of humuus as a good option to add to a vegetarian meal realistically most beans lend themselves to being cooked, pureed and flavoured with lemon, garlic and herbs. Try a cannellini bean dip for example.

Another option with vegetarian food is to look at Mexican recipes for inspiration – a recent addition to my repetoire was Mexican rice and beans. Basically saute an onion in olive oil , add 1 cup of rice to the brown and warm it through and then add a can of black beans , a crushed clove of garlic and two cups of stock. Cook through and serve. Makes a good filling for tacos or fajita’s, specially if you add some guacamole for a source of good fats and a flavour some topping!

Risotto with some type of legume like pea or mushroom also can create easy options. think about asparagus and pea risotto for example or spring vegetables. Use leeks rather than onions as your base to create a creamier taste.

Soups and noodle dishes can also add variety and inspiration – think about Malaysian laska with tofu for example or pad thai noodles.

Still struggling to find options? Christine Pope is an experienced nutritionist and can help you create nutritious vegetarian or other menu’s. Appointments are available on Tuesday or Wednesday on 8084 0081.