Vegetarians have a higher risk of anemia
People refuse to eat meat and animal products such as milk, cheese, and eggs for various reasons. But this can increase the risk of anemia, a potentially serious condition in which the body does not make enough red blood cells that contain oxygen. For vegetarians who remove meat from their menus, anemia can be caused by iron deficiency. For vegans, who avoid all animal products including milk, eggs, and even honey, anemia can also be caused by a lack of vitamin B12.
The solution is to eat a carefully balanced diet. By getting the iron you need and B12 from other sources, you should be able to remain committed to a vegetarian or vegan diet and prevent anemia.
Facts about anemia related to iron deficiency
The most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency. This condition means that you don’t get enough iron in your diet. Iron is needed to carry oxygen in red blood cell hemoglobin. These cells carry oxygen throughout your body, giving you energy. Fatigue is the most common symptom of anemia, but many people have mild anemia without knowing it.
Start by learning to know how much iron you need every day:
Women, ages 14 to 18: 15 milligrams (mg)
Women, 19-50 years old: 18 mg
Women, 51 years and older: 8 mg
Men, 14 to 18 years: 11 mg
Men, 19 years and older: 8 mg
Iron is available in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is the easiest to use by your body and is found in meat, poultry, and fish. Non-heme iron is found in vegetables – your body can still use it, it’s just not easy.
Some foods that vegetarians can eat to increase iron in their diet are:
Cereal, hot and cold
Molasses sugar syrup
Green leafy vegetables
Dried beans, like black and red beans, and lentils
Rice or pasta
Dried fruit, especially raisins
A good suggestion is to combine this iron-rich food with foods high in vitamin C because vitamin C helps use iron in your body. For example, you can eat your spinach salad with oranges, or drink a glass of orange juice with your cereal in the morning.
Multivitamins also contain iron, especially those labeled for women under the age of 50. You should discuss using iron multivitamins with your doctor, and get recommendations for the types of supplements to buy.
Facts about anemia related to vitamin B12 deficiency
Also called pernicious anemia, this type of anemia is due to a lack of vitamin B12 in your diet. This B vitamin plays an important role in making red blood cells. In nature, this vitamin is only available in meat or animal products, this is why vegans must be careful to find other ways to include it in their diet. Vegetarians who eat milk and eggs usually get enough B12 through these sources.
When you read nutritional labels on packaged foods, try looking for foods fortified with vitamin B12. Here are some examples of processed foods that contain vitamin B12:
Rice or soy milk
Cereals or grain products
Some meat substitutes (check labels for vitamin B12)
Food supplements, such as those labeled as containing B-complex
If you decide to use food supplements, keep this in mind. For example, know that even a healthy body does not easily absorb all B-12 vitamin supplements. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist for an additional number of B12 that is right for you.
Whatever your reason for choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet, learn how to create a healthy balance that includes enough iron and vitamin B12 intake to prevent anemia and give you lots of energy.