Q+A: How can a vegetarian eat enough iron?

Q A few years ago, I was diagnosed with anaemia. Eventually I was able to correct it, but now I’m feeling anaemic again. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m sure I need more iron. Can you recommend a diet that will give me enough?

A It can be a challenge for female runners to get their recommended daily intake of iron (18mg). Here are four strategies that should help:

1. Eat lean red meat. Iron is absorbed better from animal sources than from vegetables, so try to eat two to four servings of lean red meat per week. Also, combine animal and vegetable iron sources at the same meal to increase iron absorption from the vegetable source. A good dinner selection would be a meat and bean casserole. Good iron-rich vegetarian foods include beans, peas, split peas, dark-green leafy vegetables, grain products and iron-fortified cereals.

2. Consume vitamin C along with iron, as it enhances iron absorption (eg drink orange juice with an iron-fortified breakfast cereal).

3. Prepare food in cast-iron cookware. This will increase your iron intake, as iron from the pots and pans leeches into your food. The more acidic the food and the longer you cook it in the iron pot, the more iron you’ll take in.

4. Runners with a high risk of anaemia (eg menstruating women) should have their iron levels checked routinely. Get your doctor to review your plasma ferritin (storage iron), transferrin (transport iron) and haemoglobin, as such tests can detect iron deficiencies early. Once you have an accurate diagnosis, it shouldn’t be hard to increase your iron stores through diet or iron supplementation.

Ellen Coleman, nutritionist and author of Eating For Endurance