Q: How to Boost your Iron as a Vegetarian.

Hey Lauren,

As someone who struggles with iron deficiency (and I’m a vegetarian) how does processed wheat interfere with the absorption process? Just curious because I’m a high mileage runner who lives at altitude and iron levels are obviously a big concern!

Mo from the Mountains

A:

Hey Mo,

You are going to have to watch out for all sorts of iron inhibitors as a vegetarian.  Processed wheat is just one of them.  When buying wheat products, avoid ones made with lots of baking powder or self-raising flour (the phosphates are inhibitors).  Also avoid wheat products that have excess bran thrown in there to boost fiber content.  When bran is a part of the whole grain, and its sprouted or processed in the right way, it doesn’t mess with your iron absorption. I recommend “Food for Life” breads, or something similar.  I also recommend avoiding any tortilla or food item specifically designed to boost fiber.  If you eat fruits and vegetables, you get more than enough.

Another thing to watch out for, as a vegetarian is the effect of soy and legumes.  Soy and legumes are high in iron, but the bio-availability is low.  You are lucky if you get 1-10% of the iron from them.  If you have vitamin C with the soy and legumes, it makes the iron bio-available, so eat broccoli with your soy, and tomatoes with your beans.  A bowl of tofu and beans over rice won’t do squat for your iron absorption! This article has some great info for further reading.

If I were a vegetarian, I’d focus on boosting my iron in the morning and evening, and I would plan my breakfast and dinner menus to be as compatible as possible with iron absorption (yes to quinoa, no to tofu, etc.)  During lunch is when I’d squeeze in my legumes and soy, paired with vitamin C sources.  I’d eat less tofu and more fermented soy products (tempeh, nato, and miso) because fermentation decreases phytates and increases bio-availability of the iron in the same way sprouting wheat does.

Vegetables that help boost iron are broccoli, brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and potatoes.  Vegetables that inhibit are dark greens like spinach and chard, and sweet potatoes.  I found info on that here. Its funny because I was always told spinach was high in iron, but it turns out the bio-availability is way low.  If you eat a spinach salad, add orange slices to it!

Good luck,

-Lauren