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With apologies to vegetarians: do you ever crave red meat and have an insatiable desire to sink your canines into a thick piece of a T-Bone steak? Does your intuition ever tell you to get in touch with your inner Paleolithic DNA?
If so, could it be that your body is telling you that you're low in iron? Perhaps. You could also be low in vitamin B12.
But if you are vegetarian, are you at risk for being deficient in iron because you don't eat red meat? Certainly, meat eaters have a higher reserve of iron, right?
Vegetarians and animal protein eaters might be surprised to learn that vegetarians don't necessarily have lower iron levels than meat eaters. In fact, numerous studies (such as this one) prove that vegetarians have comparable levels of iron to their carnivorous counterparts.
And for gluten-free dieters, the good news is that the best sources of iron are typically gluten-free. If you're omnivorous and occasionally eat red meat (do so only if it's pasture-raised/grass fed), red meat has the form of iron that's more easily absorbable for the body. Red meat contains so-called "heme iron".
But for the vegetarian gluten-free dieter (or mostly vegetarian), the predominant form of iron you'll be getting is non-heme, which does not absorb as easily as heme. Does this mean you should give up being vegetarian? No. Luckily, all it takes for increasing iron absorption from gluten-free sources is to combine foods containing iron with vitamin C.
Vitamin C helps reduce the potential damage done by oxalic acid, which interferes with iron absorption. Foods with oxalic acid include whole grains, legumes, spinach and nuts.
But, again, luckily for the vegetarian, many foods that have oxalic acid also contain high levels of vitamin C, thus the iron malabsorption is negated. Tomatoes, broccoli, peppers and brussel sprouts are all foods that contain both high levels of iron and vitamin C.
Soybeans, lentils, quinoa, black and kidney beans, and sweet potatoes also contain a decent amount of iron for the gluten-free dieter. And although red meat is an easy way to get a plethora of iron, calorie-for-calorie, vegetarian gluten-free sources contain more iron, which helps the body: create connective tissues; create blood cells; create the chemical ATP; which provides the cells with energy; carry oxygen to the cells, and other critical factors.
See also this link from the Vegetarian Resource Group about iron.
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