Without enough dietary iron, you can experience a fast heart rate or feel fatigued, weak, short of breath and dizzy. Iron builds red blood cells, which are necessary in transporting oxygen to every bit of your body. Limited oxygen supplies mean you have less energy. Those who consume a diet based mostly on plant foods may have a harder time of getting all the iron they need, simply because plant-based iron is less readily absorbed than iron from animal products. But eating a variety of iron-rich vegetables will help you keep your iron stores up, even if you are a vegetarian or vegan.
The amount of iron you need daily depends on your age, gender and, in some cases, your activity level. The recommended dietary allowance for women is 18 milligrams per day; for pregnant women that goes up to 27 milligrams per day. Men and postmenopausal women require 8 milligrams per day. Athletes may require 30 to 70 percent more iron daily because small amounts are lost during intense exercise.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains that vegetarians naturally have lower iron stores than omnivores. This puts vegetarian women, especially, at risk of iron deficiency and iron-deficient anemia. If you are a vegetarian, aim for 14 milligrams per day if you're a man and 33 milligrams per day if you're a woman; vegans should get double the RDA. Never consume more than 45 milligrams per day. Speak to your doctor if you fear you may be iron-deficient and feel you may need a supplement.
Not All Iron Is Alike
Iron comes in heme and nonheme forms. The type of iron you get from meats is mainly heme and is relatively well-absorbed. Iron found in plant foods, including vegetables, is nonheme and less readily available for the body to use. Many plant foods, including beans and spinach, contain compounds known as phytates that inhibit absorption from these sources. When you do eat vegetables containing iron, avoiding consuming coffee, tea, cocoa, calcium and high-fiber foods around the same time. These foods also inhibit absorption. Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, cantaloupe, strawberries, leafy greens, broccoli and bell peppers, increases absorption -- so eat these veggies and fruits together with those containing iron.
Beans and legumes are veggies rich in iron. A cup of canned white beans contains 8 milligrams, 1/2 cup of lentils contains 3 milligrams and 1/2 cup of kidney beans or chickpeas contains 2 milligrams. A 1/2-cup serving of cooked spinach provides 3 milligrams, while 1/2 cup of tomatoes offers 2 milligrams. A medium baked potato provides you with 2 milligrams of iron. One-half cup of green peas or broccoli gives you 1 milligram of iron.
Due to the phytates in many of these foods, the bioavailability of iron in a vegetarian diet is just 5 to 12 percent of what these diets actually contain. Essentially, you don't absorb all the iron that these vegetables provide, so you should thus seek out generous quantities of a variety of vegetables rich in iron.
Iron Out Your Day
A vegetarian seeking adequate iron may start with a breakfast of a spinach and chopped tomato omelet with an orange on the side. For lunch, a spinach salad with chickpeas, bell pepper and a lemon vinaigrette, with lentil soup on the side, provides ample iron. At dinner, white bean chili made with tomatoes with a cup of steamed broccoli on the side helps round out an iron-rich, vegetarian day.