My husband and I were embarking on a new adventure. To mark this milestone we decided we would explore a vegetarian diet. At that point I had little experience with cooking so this suited me well. I imagine it would be a dream, for anyone who hates to touch raw meat, to start their solo exploration in the kitchen with vegetarian meals.
I tried new recipes, and if they didn’t turn out well I blamed the recipe, but I think we were on a roll. I don’t remember having any bad meals. Now I don’t know whether that’s because we actually had very good meals or whether I just chalked it all up to lessons. I even tried ramen without a recipe, and then I started exploring cooking like my mother and aunts did – without recipes, without precise measurements. Just putting what I thought was enough of whatever spice. Funny how I used to hate when I asked mommy for a recipe and she would say :”jus put how much yuh think yuh need” (in what world is this helpful? lol) and here I was now just putting how much I think I needed.
We were doing fine and feeling great on this new vegetarian journey. Heck, we were even experimenting with vegan cheese. It was a gastronomic adventure. Until the music stopped.
I don’t remember exactly what happened or exactly what kind of discomfort I felt before going to the doctor’s office. All I remember is her telling me that I needed to push pause on this vegetarian diet because my iron levels were too low and I needed to get them up. I remember saying to her “but, I am eating a lot cleaner. I am having my vegetables, how is my iron low”. I just couldn’t understand it; then she gave me a whole lesson on iron-rich foods and what to include in my diet.
Vegetarians need to eat almost twice as much iron as people who eat meat, fish, and poultry because the iron from plant foods is not absorbed by the body as well as iron from animal foods.
So our vegetarian diet exploration ended there. My doctor recommended that since I had no other commitment to the vegetarian lifestyle other than just “wanting to try it out” then I should get started on some red meat and poultry (she also listed all the dark, green, leafy veggies). After having a chat with her about iron deficiency I realized I might have had a few symptoms.
SYMPTOMS OF IRON DEFICIENCY
I was tired all the time and felt weak. I also had frequent headaches and brittle nails, but I mean I always had headaches and brittle nails. This was also the first time checking my iron levels. I am a little too embarrassed to say how old I was having my first check just for my iron levels. (I may have had my levels tested before in routine testing for other medical procedures but I had never done an iron test on its own before and had never been flagged as anaemic).
Symptoms of iron deficiency include, but are not limited to:
Chest pain, fast heartbeat or shortness of breath
Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness
Cold hands and feet
Inflammation or soreness of your tongue
Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch
Poor appetite, especially in infants and children
ISN’T THAT A “WOMAN THING”
Absolutely not. 100% no. When we think about iron deficiency we generally think about women. To be fair, you can’t really be blamed for that and most people we know/see/hear about with anaemia are women. We’ll get into why women are more susceptible to iron deficiency in just a sec. These same symptoms listed above can also be a sign for men that their iron levels are low.
While men generally need less iron than women, consider getting an iron test done if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms. In my reading I came across this Men’s Health article which had some great info about the importance of iron (which we will also get to in just a sec), but also sold the idea of checking iron levels to men – as ensuring that you’re not losing power in the gym. So get that iron test done so you can pump that iron (see what I did there? lol).
WHAT DOES IRON DO ANYWAY
Short answer? A lot !
Iron is a mineral that the body needs for growth and development. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Your body also needs iron to make some hormones.
Since it promoted the transportation of oxygen around the body, it therefore also affects brain function and also helps to ensure our immune system is in tip top shape (or something close to it). Iron is essential for the growth and development of the human body. Think of yourself as a flashlight. You will work perfectly fine, shining the light you need to, but you need batteries. Iron are those batteries.
WHY WOMEN ARE MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO IRON DEFICIENCY
Since iron is a mineral whose strength is passed around through our blood, then there’s one big thing that happens for most women that may not occur for most men – the big M. Menstruation. With this blood loss every month most women lose not only red blood cells but the protein within them and thus the iron we need to get that pep in our step.
This is especially a concern for women with quite heavy flow.
WHO NEEDS MORE IRON
As mentioned previously generally women need more iron (an example to indicate this: men 19-49 years old typically need about 14mg of iron daily, while women in the same age group require 33mg), but let’s break it down a bit:
Anyone who is a frequent blood donor may require more iron than the average Jack or Jill. Factors determining this are varied, but will include the frequency of donations and diet.
Endurance athletes, like long-distance runners: iron also makes a protein called myoglobin that provides oxygen to muscles. So this would be critically important for endurance athletes due to the intensity of their activities.
Women over the age of 50 who still menstruate should have a chat with their doctor about their iron levels and whether to start taking supplements.
Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant : iron is needed to promote the growth of your baby, or as my doctor says “to make the pregnancy stick”.
IS THERE ENOUGH IRON IN MY DIET
To get a better idea of how much iron you need to consume each day for your age and sex, check out this Healthline article. Please note that these are based on general recommendations and you should speak with your doctor and have your iron levels checked prior to making any diet or supplement changes/decisions.
Food is less nutritious these days; for a number of reasons including less nutrient-rich soil due to unsustainable practices and the resulting effects of climate change and changing farming methods that have focused on yield (to feed the growing population), which sacrifices nutrients for size. As such, it is quite possible that your current diet may not be giving you the minerals and vitamins you need. A Kushi Institute study analyzed data from 1975 and 1997 and found that fresh vegetables had 37% less iron. So don’t just think about those green, leafy veggies. Here is a list of some iron-rich foods:
offal (animal intestines)
all shellfish but particularly: clams, oysters, and mussels)
eggs also relatively high in the mineral.
For the vegetarians (who do not eat fish) and the vegans among us:
beans and other legumes
green, leafy vegetables
COMBATTING IRON DEFICIENCY
There are a few options to combat anaemia, as we become more aware of the importance of iron and the deficiencies that may exist in our diet. Your doctor may recommend diet change, then iron supplements, and perhaps finally iron infusions. Given that our food is generally less nutritious these days, we can kinda cut ourselves some slack if we’re not getting all the nutrients we need from our diet. Diet alone may not increase your iron levels. If you have any of the symptoms outlined above, have a chat with your doctor and schedule an iron test, then depending on your results you can both figure out a plan that works best for you.
Iron is also important for children as it is quite important to the development of the brain, so make sure your kids are also getting the iron they need.