Getting enough iron in a vegan diet — AKA plant-based — shouldn't be difficult if you know what foods are rich in this essential nutrient. A vegan diet relies mainly on the consumption of breads, cereals, grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds to obtain adequate nutrition — including iron.
Iron is an essential mineral and is a component of hemoglobin, the pigment in blood that carries oxygen throughout the body. The recommended daily intake of iron varies by age and gender, 18 mg in women 19-50 years, 8 mg in men 19-50 years, and 8 mg in all adults over 50 years.
Avoiding iron deficiency
Iron deficiency anemia is a common disorder, especially in women, and is associated with fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness and shortness of breath. Low iron levels do not uniformly cause these symptoms, but do increase the risk for anemia and the risk of becoming symptomatic during periods of emotional or physical stress.
Although it is commonly reported that iron intake is similar among vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores, daily iron intake is a relatively useless term because it provides no information about the amount of available iron to the body for absorption.Vegan diets contain only non-heme iron. The challenge for vegans is to consume adequate amounts of iron in a form that can be utilized efficiently.
In fact, the bioavailability of iron can vary up to 10-fold in the same foods, depending on the other foods that are eaten with the meal (Hallberg 2000). Although the iron content of vegan meals may be similar to non-vegan meals, there will likely be less iron available for absorption in the vegan meal because of chemical differences inherent to the iron found in these non-meat sources.
Heme vs. non-heme iron
Animal products are a viable source of iron and they contain a form of iron, heme iron, that is purported to be more readily utilized in the body than non-heme iron. In fact, around 15-35% of heme iron is utilized by the body versus only 2-20% for non-heme iron.
However, animal foods are also rich sources of other unwanted products such as calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics, all of which increase your risk for chronic disease and lower your immune defenses. Another problem, heme iron is associated with a huge increase in colon cancer. The vegan lifestyle, on the other hand, is associated with lower rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and even gallstones (Ball 1999).
Still at risk
One adaptation that the body will make to chronically low iron stores is that it will use less iron. Therefore, some of the disadvantages of lower iron absorption in vegans are offset by the body limiting the use of iron. Yet vegetarians and especially vegans still remain at high risk for iron deficiency. Almost half of female vegans are iron deficient (Waldmann 2004).
Vegan should be aware of the best dietary sources of iron and regularly incorporate them into the diet. Some of the best vegan sources of iron are listed below, along with the amount of iron (mg) found in each serving.
Iron-Rich Plant-Based Foods
- Breads, Cereals, and Grains
- Cream of wheat, 10
- Bran flakes, 8
- Quinoa, 4
- Oatmeal, 2
- Prune juice, 3
- Dried apricots, 2
- Dried figs, 2
- Raisins, 2
- Cooked spinach, 6
- Cooked mushrooms, 3
- Baked potato, 2
- Soybeans, 9
- Tofu, 7
- Lentils, 7
- Beans (kidney, lima, pinto), 4-5
- Nuts and Seeds
- Sunflower seeds, 2
- Cashews, 2
Enhancing iron bioavailability
There are also some strategies that can be used to enhance iron bioavailability. Eating foods with high levels of vitamin C can enhance the availability of non-heme iron up to six-fold. So eating fruits and vegetables along with the high iron foods named in the list will enhance the absorption of iron.
Foods such as broccoli, potatoes, chard, and other greens are especially good choices because they contain high levels of both iron and Vitamin C. Coffee, phytates found in cereal and legumes, and soy protein may hinder iron absorption and should be limited when high iron foods are consumed.
Are supplements necessary?
Some experts have argued that iron supplements may be necessary for the vegan female in order to attain adequate iron levels. However, this is not necessary if the guidelines above are adhered to. Furthermore, iron supplements are not without risk and may cause gastrointestinal side effects or iron overload. Iron overload results when excess iron is found in the circulation and gets deposited in the heart and liver. Iron overload is often not diagnosed until irreparable damage has been done.
Attainment of iron from vegan dietary sources is much safer than supplements. Generally, vegans can attain adequate iron levels and maintain sufficient stores in the body if they consume a wide variety of iron-rich foods and time the intake of these foods around consumption of other foods that enhance, not limit, iron absorption.
- For more tips on plant-based nutrition, make sure to browse VegKitchen’s Nutrition page.
- For lots more features on healthy lifestyle, please explore VegKitchen’s Healthy Vegan Kitchen page.
- Ball MJ, Bartlett MA. Dietary intake and iron status of Australian vegetarian en. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3):353-8.
- Hallberg L, Hulthén L. Prediction of dietary iron absorption: an algorithm for calculating absorption and bioavailability of dietary iron. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;71:1147â€“60.
- Waldmann A, Koschizke JW, Leitzmann C, Hahn A. Dietary iron intake and iron status of German female vegans: results of the German vegan study. Ann Nutr Metab. 2004;48(2):103-8. Epub 2004 Feb 25.
Dr Linda Kennedy MS SLP ND: Is an avid animal activist and nature lover. She owns a 10,000 square foot state of the art nutritional laboratory where she produces nutritional health supplements that are free of animal products.