How To Get Enough Iron On A Plant-Based Diet

The average American will eat more than their weight in meat this year. Sound like a lot? It is.

The recommended intake of red meat is no more than about 300g for a whole week (or 40g-50g each day). But a lot of people, especially in countries like the US, Australia and Argentina, are consuming much, much more. Americans on average will eat 275 grams of meat every day this year. That's the equivalent of 2.4 quarter pounders every single day. And Australians consume even more!

Researchers have found in recent years that overeating meat can have adverse effects on health - red meat in particular, which can increase the likelihood of diseases such as heart disease and colon cancer.

Meat eating also has a negative impact on our planet. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production are estimated to account for more than 14.5% of the global total. Lamb and beef have the largest carbon footprints, producing about 39kg and 27kg of carbon emissions per kilogram of meat produced.

Just by reducing meat consumption to the recommended daily limit, overeaters of meat can help reduce global carbon emissions significantly. By replacing meat with plant-based foods for just a few meals a week, we can have a profound positive impact on our planet.

We spoke to Sydney-based nutrition expert Jessica Bailes to find out how to get enough iron (and other nutrients) when replacing meat-based meals with plant-based ones.

What's your background and where are you working currently?

I'm a dietitian! I've been working in private practice for about 4 years seeing a whole lot of different people. I also work in a hospital, specialising in nutrition and mental health.

What kind of nutrients does meat provide?

Meat is in the "meat and alternatives" food group - which provides protein, iron and zinc. Meat also provides B12.

Can we get these same nutrients from plant-based foods?

Yes! This food group contains animal (chicken, fish, eggs) and plant foods- legumes, nuts and seeds, and tofu. However B12 is a nutrient that people often don't get enough of when they don't eat animal foods.

Is it possible to get enough B12 on a plant-based diet? If so, what would you recommend to people?

So there are some myths that spirulina and nutritional yeast are good sources of B12, but that is untrue. I recommend to eat food fortified in B12 twice every day, such as soy milk or vegetarian "fake meats", - check the label!- or to take a supplement. Supplements are usually bacteria derived, so not animal sourced.

What would your dietary advice be to someone who wants to reduce their meat intake?

Number one is to make sure you're not eating OVER the recommended maximum of red meat, which is about 300g per week. Make sure you replace meat with the foods listed above [legumes, nuts and seeds, and tofu] - aiming to eat a serve 2-3 times per day

Is it possible to get enough iron in your diet without eating meat? If so, how can it be achieved?

Yes absolutely for an overwhelming majority of people. You can do it by eating 2-3 serves of meat alternatives. For very few people, despite also taking iron supplements, their bodies are not able to absorb non-animal (non-haem) iron, and animal products will be necessary to stay in good health.

What are the best plant-based foods to boost our iron levels?

Besides the ones above, fruit, wholegrain foods, and dark green leafy vegetables are good sources. Also, mixing high vitamin C foods, such as fruit and vegetables, with high iron foods, such as nuts, whole grains and legumes, will help to absorb iron more easily.

Do you have any advice for people with iron deficiency anemia for managing iron levels on a plant-based diet?

Please continue to take supplements as directed by your doctor! It is very difficult to improve levels without topping your iron levels up first.


So it turns out unless we're in the small minority of people who require meat to absorb enough nutrients for healthy bodily function, meat is not a necessary component to our diets.

By eating less meat and more legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu, we can help the planet and help ourselves!

Read this next: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?


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