In many cases, a flexitarian has more concerns with iron deficiency anemia than a vegetarian does. Vegetarians are generally used to eating a balanced diet to include all of the vitamins they need. Many people who eat a flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diet feel that because they eat some meat, they are probably getting enough iron and do not need to worry about eating iron rich vegetables. However, with a decrease in the consumption of iron rich meat foods, there comes a decrease in easily absorbed iron. If you are eating a non-meat diet the majority of the time but occasionally have a burger, that is not enough iron to support your body. A person who does not eat meat on a regular basis must replace it with iron rich plant-based foods.
The iron that is found in meats is easily digestible and absorbs into the body with little or no problems. Iron that is found in plant-based foods is not absorbed as easily. Therefore, it is necessary to eat foods that will increase the absorption of the iron. Foods that can enhance the absorption of plant-based iron are high in vitamin C or are fortified with iron. Citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, cabbage, melon and tomatoes are all rich in vitamin C. To increase absorption even further, you should eat iron rich plant-based foods in combination with, or at the same meal as, vitamin C rich foods. Foods that are rich in plant-based iron include dried beans, eggs, dairy products, iron-fortified cereals, bread, pasta, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and seeds.
There are also things that can inhibit the absorption of plant-based iron. The tannin that is found in tea can interfere with the absorption of iron in the body. It is suggested that vegetarians and flexitarians limit their intake of tea, steep their tea for shorter times to decrease the amount of tannin in it or replace it with herbal teas. Calcium can also adversely affect the absorption of iron as can phosphorus and phytic acid from dietary fibers. Fortunately, it seems that when eating a balanced diet, the inhibitors are usually balanced out by the enhancers. This means that as long as you are eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of iron rich foods and vitamin C, you should not need to be overly concerned with iron absorption.
Menstruating, pregnant, breastfeeding or menopausal women have smaller stores of iron in the body and may be more affected by a drop in meat-based iron. It is important that iron supplements are not taken unless a deficiency exists. If you are concerned for your iron levels due to diet or because you are pregnant, you should see a doctor. A simple blood test can evaluate your iron levels and a doctor can suggest ways to change your diet to increase iron levels if necessary. A supplement should not be necessary in most cases.
Iron deficiency anemia is caused by low levels of iron in the body. Anemia can result in fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, headache, pale skin, mental confusion and even organ damage in extreme cases. Most cases of anemia are mild but even mild cases of anemia can cause bothersome fatigue. A well balanced diet that follows some basic nutritional guidelines should keep all flexitarians from having to be concerned about iron deficiency anemia.