If you’ve dabbled with a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you may be used to getting grilled by well-meaning people in your life about these choices. This concern comes from the knowledge that completely cutting out any large group of food can have the potential to lead to a nutrient deficiency. As with any change, being mindful and educating yourself will help you to be successful.
A vegan lifestyle can seem challenging at first but a few tweaks to your meals can ensure you are getting everything your body needs! Iron is an essential nutrient, which means that we need to get it from the foods that we eat. Vegans are at a higher risk of developing an iron deficiency because they are not consuming the most common and easily absorbed source of iron found in most diets, meat.
Not to worry! You can follow a vegan lifestyle and still get enough iron.
Why is any of this important?
Iron deficiency is a common deficiency worldwide. This powerful micronutrient helps to deliver oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body. Extreme fatigue is often seen in cases of deficiency because, without adequate iron, oxygen will not be delivered sufficiently to your brain and muscles. Not ideal!
How much iron do I need?
Here are the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) of iron in milligrams per day based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These reflect the needs of most individuals without other health concerns. Note that the recommendations change with age and sex. This is because iron stores are lost with blood loss so individuals that regularly menstruate have increased needs. Use this chart as a starting point and keep in mind that if you’ve undergone gender reassignment and are menstruating you will fall into the “assigned female” category.
|Children age 4 – 8||10 mg|
|Children age 9 – 13||8 mg|
|Assigned female at birth age 14 – 18||15 mg|
|Assigned male at birth age 14 – 18||11 mg|
|Assigned female at birth age 19 – 50||18 mg|
|Assigned male at birth age 19 – 50||8 mg|
|Adults over 51||8 mg|
What vegan foods are high in iron?
Tons of them! Here are some favorites:
Soy, lentils, black/kidney/pinto beans, fortified cereals, dark leafy green vegetables, cashews, whole grain and enriched breads.
Foods that are “fortified” with iron didn’t contain iron before it was added in. Breakfast cereals are commonly fortified with iron. Foods that are “enriched” with iron naturally contain the nutrient but lose it during processing. Iron is then enriched back into the final product. This is common when wheat flour is processed into white flour and why you see “enriched flour” on the ingredient list of many food items containing wheat.
Heme vs non heme iron?
We get iron from food in two dietary forms: heme and non heme. Heme comes from animal sources and non heme comes from plant sources. It’s important to boost the absorption of our beloved non heme iron food sources to ensure we’re hitting our RDA of iron.
Think of vitamin C as iron’s bestie. In your vegan lifestyle, they should go everywhere together because vitamin C enhances non heme absorption when sources are consumed together. Chili is a solid go to because of the iron from beans and the vitamin C in tomatoes. Something like a brown rice bowl with roasted red peppers (vitamin C) and cashews (iron) will also do the trick! Trying out recipes that contain both high sources of iron and vitamin C will help you to reach your daily amount. If you do take a vegan iron supplement, go ahead and gulp that down with a few ounces of orange juice for enhanced absorption.
Think of calcium as iron’s frenemy. The body needs both of them but it’s best to seat them at two different tables to avoid any drama. Calcium, when consumed with iron, has long been thought to impede both heme and non heme iron absorption. Some research suggests that this may not be a hard fast rule and likely comes into play when consuming very high amounts of calcium. To be on the safe side, if you are on a calcium supplement, take it at least a few hours before or after your iron rich meal or iron supplement.
My doctor says I’m anemic, what should I do?
Don’t panic! Your doctor may test your blood for anemia if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms: fatigue, confusion, headaches, concentration difficulty, dizziness, coldness of the hands and feet, irregular heartbeat, or unusual cravings of non-food items.
An iron supplement may be recommended while your blood work looks irregular. Take the recommended supplement in addition to boosting your intake of your favorite vegan iron rich foods. Put a plan in place with your doctor to establish a time to be retested to evaluate how long you need to stay on a supplement.
Some experience nausea or constipation with long term iron supplement use. If these symptoms are causing you to skip taking your supplement, try eating a small amount (a few crackers and a few ounces of orange juice) with the supplement and take right before bed to avoid experiencing nausea. Leading an active lifestyle with plenty of water can prevent constipation. Keep your doctor in the loop about any adverse symptoms, they may recommend a different supplement.
Ask your doctor about seeing a registered dietitian for guidance on increasing your iron intake that aligns with your lifestyle preferences.
Here are a few recipes that can help you boost your iron intake on a plant-based diet today:
Is it possible to consume too much iron?
Excessive iron intake is more commonly linked with supplement use than dietary iron consumption. If severe, an overdose can lead to organ failure and even death. If you are taking an iron supplement, it’s important to follow the dose set by your medical provider.
Hemochromatosis, prevalent in 1 in 300-500 individuals, is a treatable condition caused by a gene mutation that leads to an excessive buildup of iron in the body. If someone has this condition, their body is unable to excrete excess iron and can lead to cirrhosis, diabetes, cardiac abnormalities, and skin hyperpigmentation.
I think I get it now.
Fantastic! You now know the ins and outs of iron and can feel confident that you’ll get the right amount with your vegan lifestyle. Happy eating!