My 6 Rules for a healthy, iron rich diet. A different sort of blog post today.
Usually, when we decide to stop eating meat, it’s a decision that’s made with our hearts, not for health reasons. We don’t research alternative vitamin and mineral sources or what our bodies need, we worry about craving bacon butties or roast chicken and become experts in what products contain gelatin. But actually, if you’re going to cut out an entire food group from your diet (two for vegans) you do need to consider carefully where those vitamins and minerals are going to come from or risk making yourself ill.
Vegetarianism and veganism is becoming more popular now so I thought I’d share with you my experiences negotiating the meat free world; and hopefully give you some tips and simple changes you can make to your lifestyle that will make a world of difference to your health.
Last summer I started to feel really unwell. I was tired all the time, and I don’t mean, “it’s been a long day” tired, I mean physically and mentally exhausted. I had to pull over at the side of the road for naps whilst driving because I was falling asleep, on weekends away I had to go back to the hotel to sleep for a few hours in the afternoons, I lost my appetite, I lost a lot of weight, was pale and had pins and needles in my hands and feet if I stood up for too long. I know, scary!
After a trip to the doctors and 8 vials of blood taken for testing (!) it turned out I had an iron deficiency, I was just under the safe limit. All that just because I hadn’t been eating right. At the time, I was working 2 jobs, studying in college and planning my wedding, my schedule was crazy and so my healthy diet and meal planning went out the window. I was eating convenience foods mostly – jacket potatoes, pizzas, chips, sandwiches, but because I was managing to eat a piece of fruit or 2 every day I thought my diet was pretty good.
The truth is though, and don’t hate me for this, but we are designed to eat meat. There, I said it! A non-meat eater saying we’re supposed to eat meat! Well we are, sorry guys, our bodies need iron and meat is the best and easiest source. HOWEVER, it is possible to live a healthy, iron rich lifestyle without eating meat, but it takes a little more planning and a bit of knowledge and consideration. I learned the hard way, but you don’t have to.
After my diagnosis I was put on iron tablets and they are horrid, I couldn’t wait to come off them, and the prospect of being on them for the rest of my life scared me into researching iron and what I can do to tackle it through diet alone.
The NHS website lists these as the main side effects of iron tablets:
* constipation or diarrhoea
* tummy pain
* feeling sick
* black poo
Imagine this on top of all the low-iron symptoms I had – not nice! However, after just a few weeks on them I had more energy and the pins and needles stopped. After a few months, although I was still very thin, I was feeling great and started altering my diet.
* liver (but avoid this during pregnancy)
* pulses (beans, peas and lentils)
* dried fruit – such as dried apricots
* wholegrains – such as brown rice
* fortified breakfast cereals
* soy bean flour
* most dark-green leafy vegetables – such as watercress and curly kale
And things to reduce as:
* milk and dairy
* foods with high levels of phytic acid, such as wholegrain cereals, which can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and pills
Large amounts of these foods and drinks make it harder for your body to absorb iron.
My doctor also told me that eggs are full of iron, and citrus fruits (lemons, oranges etc) can help your body to absorb more iron from your food.
At first I felt quite overwhelmed by the prospect of overhauling my diet, so I started simply and made a few rules for myself:
My 6 Rules
1, No tea or coffee an hour before or after a meal
2, Swap white rice for brown rice
3, Have a glass of orange juice with my most iron rich meal, every day
4, Try to have at least 1 of the following, in at least 2 meals every day:
- fish (I’m Pesky),
- leafy green veg (kale, cabbage, spinach etc)
5, Add citrus into as many meals as possible
6, Have at least 5 full portions (80-100g) of different fruits and veggies a day
Number 5 seems difficult, but it’s actually really easy. Have a dressing on your salad, add a splash of lime juice to stir-fries or fish, add a splash of lemon juice to pulses or tomato sauces. I keep a bottle of lemon juice (like the ones you buy for pancakes on Shrove Tuesday) in my fridge door and add a splash whenever I can.
I still live by these rules now, a year on, though now it’s just part of my lifestyle and routine, not a conscious effort. I take one shop-bought multivitamin which includes iron a day, just to make sure I’m topped up, but other than that I have been maintaining a healthy iron level by diet alone for 6 months now, and I’ve never felt better.
I have recently reduced my carbohydrate and sugar intake (no white carbs and brown carbs with only one meal a day) and increased my protein and fat levels through eggs, pulses, nuts, butter and cream etc and I have found this works really well for me, but this isn’t for everyone. (I still have one fat day a week where I can eat anything I like though. life is for living after all, not dieting)
I have managed to work these iron rich foods into a lot of my recipes and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to start my blog. You can eat fantastic, aesthetic, delicious food and maintain a healthy lifestyle without eating meat. If you choose to, no judgement here.