As an active female pescatarian of child-bearing age, I possess several attributes that could put me at risk for iron deficiency. Looking for a explanation for recent low energy levels, I did some reading on iron supplements. Iron deficiency can cause fatigue, and an increasing iron intake may seem like an easy fix, but iron supplementing can be tricky: excess amounts of iron can cause gastrointestinal distress and even become toxic. It’s safest to get blood work and recommendations from your doctor, and take a daily multivitamin.
If you want to do some dietary tinkering of your own, though, there are good resources on the Interwebs. I found this National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements article and this Vegetarian Times article to give simple, basic overviews.
Non-meat eaters may consume the daily recommended amount of iron, but the iron is a type, called nonheme, that isn’t as readily absorbed by the body as iron from meat, called heme (as in, comes from hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells in animals). Nonheme iron isn’t as available for absorption by the digestive tract, and the NIH suggests that vegetarians consider consuming twice the recommended daily amount of iron in order for their bodies to store the appropriate amount. The Vegetarian Resource Group recommends an iron RDA of 14mg for vegetarian men and post-menopausal women, and 33mg for pre-menopausal women (the official RDA for those groups is 8mg and 18mg, respectively).
Iron supplements contain either ferric or ferrous salts, with ferrous being more easily absorbed. Look for ferrous fumarate, ferrous sulfate, or ferrous gluconate in your multivitamin. Mine gives me 18mg of iron from ferrous fumarate, which on top of the iron I get from a vegetable-rich diet, should be plenty.
The bottom line is that those who eat fewer animal products can keep iron stores up by eating plenty of greens and whole grains, and taking a daily multivitamin. It’s probably best not to take iron supplements without the oversight of a physician.
Good sources of nonheme iron:
- iron-fortified cereals
- dark, leafy greens
- soy (tofu, tempeh)
- blackstrap molasses (mentioned all over the place, but not a very versatile ingredient!)
Suggestions for improving absorption of nonheme iron:
- Eat iron-rich food with vitamin C-rich foods (fruits and vegetables)
- Avoid combining iron-rich foods with iron absorption blockers such as coffee, tea, cocoa, calcium, and fiber