Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency regardless of dietary lifestyle. 75% of all women are affected. That’s crazy!
And being vegan also puts you at a higher risk of deficiency.
But there is no need to panic (particularly if you are vegan and a woman) because it is possible to meet your iron requirement as a vegan regardless of your gender. And it’s not super complicated.
Just read this article until the end, and you’ll learn everything you need to know about iron as a vegan.
Among others, we’ll cover:
- Iron-rich vegan foods
- How to boost iron absorption
- Common iron deficiency symptoms
- if supplements are necessary
- how you can check if you get enough iron
And we’ll also take a look at some examples of iron-rich meals.
Sounds good? Let’s go!
Why is iron important?
Let’s start with the basics or, in other words: why you should care about your iron intake.
Iron has a lot of essential functions, but one of the most important things iron does is transport and store oxygen.
If you are low in iron, then not enough oxygen can be transported into your cells. As you can imagine, that can have a variety of negative consequences.
Iron is also involved in the production of DNA, hormones, and blood cells. In addition, it plays a role in metabolism, energy production and is a part of proteins and enzymes.
You also need iron for:
- – A healthy pregnancy
- – Your immune system
- – Brain function,
- – Healthy hair, skin, and nails.
Consequences of iron deficiency:
What happens if you don’t get enough iron?
An iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which means that there are not enough red blood cells in your body to transport and store oxygen.
In very severe cases, a deficiency can lead to an abnormal heart rate or, at worst, heart failure. So meeting your iron need is definitely something you want to take seriously.
When you don’t have enough iron, you may also experience extreme tiredness and fatigue.
A low iron level can also impact pregnancy, promoting early birth and low birth weight.
How much iron do you need per day?
Women should consume 15 mg of iron per day and men 10 mg.
Since iron from plant sources is more difficult to absorb, some dietary associations recommend that those on a vegan diet take about 1.8x as much iron as is recommended for the general population.
For women, that would be 27 mg and for men, 18 mg. However, this recommendation is a bit controversial.
So, rather than stressing about the exact number of mg you take in every day, it’s better to focus on
1) Eating a variety of iron-rich foods throughout your day
2) Using strategies that boost iron absorption.
By doing that you should have no problem meeting your iron need as a vegan.
But to be safe, getting a blood test that measures your iron level once or twice a year is highly recommended.
Vegan iron sources
To make sure you get enough iron on a vegan diet, the first thing you want to do is eat a variety of iron-rich foods every day.
Some of the best plant sources of iron are:
- – Sesame seeds
- – Arugula
- – Lentils
- – Dates
- – Parsley
- – Kale
- – Bananas
- – Sunflower seeds
- – Brown rice
- – Soybeans
- – Blackstrap molasses
- – Figs
- – Beans
- – Potatoes
- – Tomatoes
- – Oats
- – Quinoa
- – Chickpeas
- – Baby greens
- – Prune juice
- – Tomato paste
- – Spirulina
- – Pumpkin seeds
- – Flax seeds
- – Almond
- – Broccoli
- – Spinach
- – Tofu
- – Cashew nuts
- – Raisins
- – Hemp seeds
- – White beans
- – Whole grains
Phew, what a long list. Isn’t it amazing that so many plant foods are a good iron source? 😃
Yes, but why do vegans have an increased risk of deficiency if so many plants are a great source?
Well, low iron levels have less to do with how much iron you take in and more with the kind of iron you consume.
You see, there are two different kinds of iron. Heme iron, which is found in meat, and non-heme iron, which is found in plants.
The body can easily absorb heme iron, but non-heme iron is harder to absorb because plants have compounds that reduce absorption.
For that reason, even if you eat plant foods rich in iron, your body can only absorb and use a fraction of that iron.
But no need to worry because there are a few simple things that you can do to improve iron absorption.
How to improve iron absorption
Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods
The easiest way to do that is by adding a bit of lemon or lime juice to your meals. Doing this also improves flavor, so #doublewhammy.
But you can also add other vitamin C-rich foods to your dish, such as bell pepper, cabbage, kiwi, oranges, pineapple, strawberries, and brussels sprouts.
Luckily for us vegans, some plants, like broccoli, are already a great source of both iron and vitamin C. Isn’t mother nature fantastic?
Soak whole grains and legumes before cooking them
This is another simple thing you can do to improve iron absorption. Sprouting works well too.
Pair iron-rich meals with fermented foods
You can do that, for example, by adding some miso paste, tempeh, or sauerkraut to your main or side dish.
Eat a variety of iron-rich foods throughout the day
Spreading out your iron sources over the entire day is better than eating one big iron-rich meal. This is because during a given timeframe, the body can only absorb a limited amount of iron.
Cook foods that are rich in oxalate
It is recommended to cook foods that are rich in the plant component oxalate because oxalate can reduce iron absorption even more. Common oxalate-rich foods are spinach, beets, and amaranth.
Cook grains and beans with garlic and onions
That’s another super easy thing to do, particularly because a lot of recipes already tell you to do that because doing so adds flavor.
Natural mechanism that boost iron absorption
Further, when you are low in iron, your body absorbs more iron, which is great, BUT you don’t want to use that mechanism as a strategy to boost your iron.
Cook your food in an iron cast skillet or add an iron fish
Last but not least, you can improve the amount of iron in your dish by cooking your food in an iron cast skillet or adding an iron fish to your pan. The iron from the skillet or fish will transfer to your food, making it a better iron source.
Factors that can reduce iron absorption
You just learned some easy strategies that will help your body absorb iron.
Unfortunately, there are also some things that can make it even harder for your body to absorb non-heme iron than it already is.
So, here are a few things you want to avoid doing:
Don’t drink coffee, tea, or wine with your meals or directly before or after a meal.
Whenever possible, have these beverages one hour before or two hours after a meal.
Don’t take a calcium supplement with your meal
If you need to take a calcium supplement, it would also be best to take it either an hour before or two hours after your meal.
Some medications can also inhibit iron absorption
If you take medications regularly, it might be a good idea to consult your physician or registered dietician to discuss possible interference.
Examples of iron-rich meals
I get it; trying to eat plenty of iron-rich foods and making sure you use methods that boost iron absorption can seem like a lot of work.
But actually, it’s not all that bad.
You’ll find that soon most of these strategies become second nature, and you won’t have to think about them too much anymore.
Also, let’s take a look at some examples, so you can see how easy preparing iron-rich meals can be.
For breakfast, you could enjoy oatmeal with flax seeds, cacao nibs, berries, pumpkin seeds, and a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice.
For lunch, you could make whole-wheat spaghetti with tomato sauce and pair that with a green salad and a lemon-tahini-dressing.
Or you could make a Quinoa Salad with fresh broccoli, bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, black beans, and parsley and serve that with fresh lemon juice and topped with sesame seeds.
For dinner, you could make a chickpea curry with dried fruits and fresh herbs or enjoy a Lentil Burger topped with tomatoes, arugula, and onion and enjoy potatoes as an aside.
When it comes to snacking, bell pepper sticks with hummus are a great choice.
Here are some more amazing iron-rich recipes that you could give a try.
The importance of regular blood tests
As long as you eat iron-rich meals throughout the day and use methods that increase iron absorption, you should have no problem meeting your iron need as a vegan.
However, since iron is so important and the consequences of a deficiency can be severe, you don’t want to assume you get enough; you want to be sure.
And that is why it is a good idea to get a blood test done once or twice a year* that measures your iron levels.
When you set up your appointment, you want to ask that both serum ferritin and serum iron are measured.
Serum iron lets you know how much iron is in your blood when it is drawn.
Serum ferritin is your iron storage; it lets you know how well you have been supplied with iron for the last several weeks.
Although it is commonly done, only measuring serum iron is not ideal because if you are generally low in iron, but the night before your blood test, you eat an iron-rich meal, the results would show that you are well supplied with iron.
However, had you eaten something else that night, the results would have indicated that you are deficient.
Alternatively or additionally, it is also possible to measure the hemoglobin level, hematocrit level, or erythrocyte count. These values detect anemia, which is a consequence of iron deficiency.
*If you have a diagnosed deficiency or have been deficient in the past, it may be a good idea to get a test done more frequently. Please talk to your doctor about specific recommendations.
Symptoms of iron deficiency:
In addition to getting regular blood tests, it’s good to be aware of the most common deficiency symptoms.
So, in case you experience any of them, you can seek medical advice.
The most common iron deficiency symptoms are:
- – Uncommonly strong fatigue
- – Pale skin
- – Headaches and dizziness
- – Being out of breath quickly
- – Dry skin / dry hair
- – Cold hands and feet
- – Frequent infections
- – Trouble concentrating
- – Reduced exercise capacity
- – Hair loss
- – Irritability
- – Inability to maintain body temperature
Should you take an iron supplement as a vegan?
Since iron is so important and can be more challenging to get on a vegan diet, you may be tempted to take an iron supplement.
However, it’s not recommended to do that because when it comes to iron, too little as well as too much can be harmful, and the ideal range is very small.
For that reason, you only want to take a supplement if you have a diagnosed deficiency or your doctor has advised you to take one.
How much iron is too much iron?
In Europe, there is no defined upper intake level. In the US, it is recommended that children take no more than 40 mg and grown-ups no more than 45 mg per day.
The reason why you want to avoid getting too much iron is that iron acts as a free radical.
Free radicals can cause cell and DNA damage, promote aging, and may increase the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, type II diabetes, and neurological illnesses.
Moreover, excessive iron intake can disrupt the copper and zinc metabolism and damage the colon. In extremely high doses, iron can be poisonous.
Signs that you may have been getting too much iron can be throwing up, diarrhea, constipation, fever, as well as kidney and liver damage.
Alright, you just learned everything that you need to know about iron as a vegan. I know we covered a lot of information in this post.
And that’s why I created a free guide with all the most important nutrients for vegans, including iron, and how you can reliably meet the need.
It has everything you need to know nicely summed up so you can quickly reference it any time. And you can download that for free below.
Thank you for spending time with me today, and have a wonderful day, and I can’t wait until we hang out again! 😊