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Beans are a good non-meat source of iron.
Adult men should have about 8 milligrams of iron each day, while women need 18 milligrams daily, the Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board advises. Adequate iron is needed for your body to produce red blood cells and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the compound that serves as the primary energy source for cellular metabolism. While animal-based proteins like beef, poultry, fish and shellfish are among some of the best natural sources of iron, people who are strict vegetarians or vegans and don't eat any meat still have several ways to get enough iron. Talk to a doctor or dietitian if you're concerned about your iron intake.
Eat Beans and Iron-Rich Vegetables
Foods like dried beans, legumes and certain vegetables -- particularly leafy green vegetables -- have a higher concentration of iron per calorie when compared to animal-based foods, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. A 1-cup serving of cooked soybeans provides 7.8 milligrams of iron, and cooked fresh spinach has 6.4 milligrams of iron in every cup. Other naturally rich plant-based iron sources include lentils, kidney beans, oat bran and barley. The iron in all plant foods is in the non-heme form, a type of iron that the body doesn't absorb as well as iron from animal products. To increase non-heme iron absorption, eat high-iron plant foods with a source of vitamin C, says the Linus Pauling Institute. For example, add beans or chopped greens like Swiss chard to soups or stews containing tomatoes or tomato sauce.
Eat Fortified or Enriched Foods
A number of vegetarian-friendly foods are fortified with high concentrations of iron. Some ready-to-eat breakfast cereals like raisin bran or wheat flakes can contain as much as 18 milligrams of iron in a 1- or 3/4-cup serving, providing 100 percent or more of the recommended daily allowance of iron for both men and women. Many grain products are enriched with iron, meaning that iron that was lost during processing is added back to the finished product. Iron-enriched foods include white rice, white flour and cornmeal. Like other plant-based iron sources, you can increase the amount of iron you absorb from iron-fortified and iron-enriched foods by consuming them with vitamin C. Eat your breakfast cereal with a glass of orange juice, or your sandwich with some melon or berries.
Use Cast Iron Cookware
A 2006 study published in the "Journal of Food Science" reported that foods cooked in cast iron pots had a significantly higher concentration of iron per serving than foods prepared in other types of pots. This is especially true for acidic foods such as tomato sauce, which contains a high amount of vitamin C. In the study, high vitamin C foods cooked in cast iron cookware gained as much as 25 milligrams of iron for every 100 grams of the food. Columbia Health advises that if you choose to cook with cast iron to increase your iron intake, use new pots that have more of the mineral than old ones, and stick with methods that use little oil and require frequent stirring, such as sautГ©ing.
The Linus Pauling Institute says that a varied diet should provide adequate iron for most healthy individuals, but some people, including young women, vegans and vegetarians, may benefit from an iron supplement. Iron supplementation may cause side effects like constipation, stomach pain, nausea, heartburn or vomiting. It may also alter the normal effect of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, antacids, birth control medications, hypertension drugs like enalapril, cholestyramine and some antibiotics. Avoid using an iron supplement until you've spoken to your doctor, and never give the supplements to a child or take more than the recommended dosage.