Anaemia caused by iron deficiency can be a nutritional problem for vegetarians, especially women.
The major function of iron is to transport oxygen to all of the organs, muscles and tissues in your body. Symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia can include tiredness, weakness, shortness of breath, and headache.
There are 2 forms of iron found in food — haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is the more readily absorbed form of iron, and is commonly found in meat. Many plant foods also contain iron, but it is almost always in the non-haem form, which is not so easily absorbed.
If you are a vegetarian, you need to include plenty of iron-rich foods in your diet to ensure that your iron intake is adequate. You should also take care to combine iron-rich foods with foods that enhance iron absorption, and avoid foods that inhibit absorption.
For vegetarians, sources of iron include:
It is recommended that all vegetarians try to include some plant-based sources of iron in every meal.
Vitamin C has been shown to enhance the absorption of the non-haem iron found in plant foods by up to 2 to 3 times if taken at the same time. So to improve your iron intake, combine iron-rich plant foods with foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as:
Tannic acid is a substance that can interfere with the absorption of non-haem iron, reducing it by as much as half. So to ensure an adequate iron intake, vegetarians should try to avoid drinking tea, coffee and cola drinks (which all contain tannic acid) at meal times.
While calcium is important for bones, it can also inhibit iron absorption. So try not to eat dairy products or take calcium supplements at the same time as eating iron-rich foods.
Last Reviewed: 16 July 2008