What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that is important for the healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body.1
In particular, iron is an important part of hemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that collects oxygen from your lungs and transports it throughout your body. Two-thirds of the body’s iron is in hemoglobin.
Without enough iron, your body wouldn’t be able to create enough healthy red blood cells. Consequently, iron deficiency anemia is when there is a lack of red blood cells.1
Where do you get it?
Although iron is often associated with red meat, iron is actually present in many plant foods. In fact, you can get all the iron you need when you eat a healthy vegan diet. Making sure to eat a variety of iron-rich foods such as beans, dried fruit, and dark leafy green vegetables will help ensure you get enough iron.2,3,4
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to consume any animal products to get a sufficient amount of iron. In reality, eating animal foods could lead to an excess of iron in your body, but we’ll cover that a bit later. First, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting an adequate amount in your diet.
Are You Getting Enough?
Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for Iron*
Infants and children
• 0 to 6 months: 0.27 milligrams per day (mg/day)
• 6 months to 1 year: 11 mg/day
• 1 to 3 years: 7mg
• 4 to 8 years: 10 mg/day
• 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
• 14 to 18 years: 11 mg/day
• 19+ years: 8 mg/day
• 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
• 14 to 18 years: 15 mg/day
• 19 to 50 years: 18 mg/day
• 51+ years: 8 mg/day
14+ years: 27mg/day
14 to 18 years: 10mg/day
19 to 30 years: 9mg/day
31+ years: 9mg/day
Note: If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough, ask your health care provider to test your iron levels.
*RDA amounts are from the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine (National Academies of the Sciences, Engineering and Medicine).6 The upper limit RDA is 40 mg for <13 years and 45 mg for >13 years.7
Sample Menu with Iron Content (in mg) 5
Breakfast: Oatmeal w/ sliced fruit & brown sugar (& pumpkin seeds)
1 1/2 cups of cooked oatmeal contains 1.5 mg of iron
1-2 bananas sliced on top of oatmeal w/ brown sugar
Snack: Dried figs
1/2 cup of dried figs = 1.5 mg
Lunch: Baked potatoes with green peas
2 medium baked potatoes, with skin = 3.8 mg
1/2 cup (125mL) cooked green peas = 1.3 mg
Dinner: Lentil-Quinoa casserole with spinach and mixed vegetables
3/4 cup (175mL) cooked lentils = 4.5 mg
1 cup cooked quinoa = 2.8 mg
1/2 cup (125mL) cooked spinach = 3.2 mg
Total = 19 mg of iron
If you need additional iron, you could: add 1 oz of pumpkin seeds (4.2 mg) to the oatmeal, increase the amount of lentils by 1/4 cup (1.63 mg), and add another 1/2 cup of spinach ( 3.2 mg). The new total = 28.03 mg of iron, which would be adequate to meet the RDA for pregnant women.
Note: The RDA for vegans/vegetarians is, in some sources, recommended to be 1.8 times the common RDA (intended for omnivores).7
So, if you were interested in following those recommendations, you could add an additional 1/2 cup of dried figs and a 1/2 cup of spinach to bring the amount of iron up to 32.73 mg for the day (the RDA would be approx. 32.4 mg).
And, of course, adjust the menu plan to suit your own caloric needs, this is just an example to show you how you can easily get the RDA for iron.
How to Maximize Iron Absorption
Maximizing iron absorption from plant foods can be accomplished by consuming vitamin C-rich foods with them. Eating foods such as oranges or other citrus fruits, broccoli or bell peppers at the same meal can improve plant-based iron absorption.9
In addition, avoid drinking tea or coffee with your meals, as these can impair the absorption of iron.8,9 Additionally, fibre and other nutrient-rich plant foods found in a whole food, plant-based diet can aid in iron absorption.11
Anemia: What Are The Symptoms?
Although they are not as common as excesses, instances of iron deficiency do exist. Anemia can be caused by a variety of different influences. If the anemia is mild, it may be difficult to notice any symptoms. However, some symptoms of anemia could be exhibited through10:
* Easy fatigue and loss of energy
* Unusually rapid heartbeat, particularly when exercising
* Headache and shortness of breath, especially while exercising
* Difficulty concentrating
* Pale skin
* Leg cramps
In particular, if the anemia is caused by an iron deficiency, then the specific symptoms could be10:
* A hunger for unusual, non-food substances like paper, dirt, or ice (a condition referred to as “pica”)
* An upward curvature of the nails, called koilonychias
* A soreness of the mouth, with cracking at the corners
Note: A severe iron deficiency can cause difficulty in swallowing.1
Recommendations for overcoming iron deficiency anemia, provided by Dr. McDougall’s Health & Medical Center include looking for the root cause and correcting it. If you have not yet identified the cause of your iron deficiency anemia (especially if you are a menstruating woman), they recommend beginning by switching to a low-fat, plant-based diet free from dairy products. And additional benefit may be provided by iron supplements early in treatment.11
Watch a video from The Plant-Based Dietitian about Iron Deficiency Anemia and Iron on a plant-based, healthy vegan diet.
Are You Getting Too Much Iron?
Is the real concern not getting enough or getting too much?
Although iron deficiency is often talked about, particularly in regards to a vegan diet, in the US “iron overload,” or excess iron in the body, is much more common.12
Further, suffering from iron deficiency anemia is no more likely to occur in individuals following a healthy vegan diet than anyone else.13 Many studies have looked into whether or not iron in vegetables foods alone are sufficient to meet the needs of individuals.
As stated on Dr. McDougall’s Health & Medical Center web site: “Hemoglobin levels in vegetarians, which reflect the amount of iron in the blood, are comparable to those in people who eat flesh as a large part of their diet; and anemia has actually been found less commonly among people who eat vegetable based diets.”11
Additionally, the body is not capable of eliminating excess iron.12 Therefore, the real issue may not be are you getting enough, but are you getting too much?
In addition to eating excess red meat, studies have shown vitamin and mineral supplements containing iron to be major contributors to iron overload.12 These sources, including iron supplements and multivitamins with iron, provide highly absorbable iron that can lead to a surplus build up in the body.8,14
Consequently, even though heme iron, the type found in animal products, is more readily absorbed by the body, non-heme iron, found in plants, may actually be a safer and better source.13
Because non-heme iron is less easily absorbed, it creates a natural control to help make sure you don’t end up with too much iron in your body. Thus, a diet comprised of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans provides sufficient iron, without getting too much.
Further, menstruating women often have lower levels of iron as, with menstruation, they likely see a reduction in their hemoglobin, and thus iron, with each cycle. Therefore, it is interesting to note that typically people who live to a very old age have iron levels closer to those seen in menstruating women, most likely due to a lower lifelong dietary intake of iron.12
Hemochromatosis: Excess Iron
Hemochromatosis, or excess iron, is more likely if you have been supplementing with multivitamins containing iron. The best way to check for high levels of iron is to get your levels checked. There are three tests for iron:
*Serum ferritin (Normal values are 15-60 mcg/l of serum. This is the most reliable key to the level of iron in your body.)
*Total iron binding capacity (TIBC)
Ask your doctor about these tests if you’re concerned your iron levels may be too high.12
Although not exclusive to Hemochromatosis, symptoms can include15:
* A lack of energy
* Abdominal pain
* Memory fog
* Loss of sex drive
* Heart flutters
* Irregular heart beat
So, don’t worry about a plant-based diet not being able to provide you with enough iron. As long as you consume enough calories to fuel your lifestyle, eating whole, nutrient-rich plant foods will help you to get not too little, not too much, but just the right amount of iron that your body needs.
And, like many nutrients, you don’t need to fret about getting the RDA for iron every day as your body does have a reserve.5 Just eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans, and you should be fine. These 13 Plant Foods High in Iron are a great place to start.
Iron in meat linked to heart disease – Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)
FDA Ban Multivitamins Containing Iron or Copper – PCRM
What Supplements Should I Take – PCRM
Hemochromatosis – Iron Disorders Institute
1 Watson, S. (n.d.). What You Need To Know About Iron Supplements. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/iron-supplements
2 Breyer, M. (2015, August 6). 12 Top Vegan Iron Sources. Retrieved from http://www.care2.com/greenliving/12-top-vegan-iron-sources.html
3 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (n.d.). Power Sources. Retrieved from https://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/pplate/power-sources
4 Dietitians of Canada. (2014, February 28). Food Sources of Iron. Retrieved from http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Minerals/Food-Sources-of-Iron.aspx
5 Mangels, R., PhD, RD. (n.d.). Iron in the Vegan Diet. Retrieved from http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php
6 Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. (n.d.). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). Retrieved from http://iom.nationalacademies.org/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/New%20Material/2_%20RDA%20and%20AI%20Values_Vitamin%20and%20Elements.pdf
7 Norris, J. (2013, June). Iron. http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/iron
8 Greger, M., MD. (2012, July 27). Risk Associated with Iron Supplements. Nutrition Facts Podcast. Podcast retrieved from http://nutritionfacts.org/video/risk-associated-with-iron-supplements/
9 Greger, M., MD. (2012, November 1). How to Enhance Mineral Absorption. Retrieved from http://nutritionfacts.org/2012/11/01/how-to-enhance-mineral-absorption/
10 WebMD. (n.d.). Understanding Anemia Symptoms. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/understanding-anemia-symptoms
11 Dr. McDougall’s Health & Medical Center. (n.d.). Anemia. Retrieved from https://www.drmcdougall.com/health/education/health-science/common-health-problems/anemia/
12 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (n.d.). Iron: The Double Edged Sword. Retrieved from https://www.pcrm.org/health/cancer-resources/diet-cancer/nutrition/iron-the-double-edged-sword
13 Greger, M., MD. (2015, June 5). The Safety of Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron. Nutrition Facts Podcast. Podcast retrieved from http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-safety-of-heme-vs-non-heme-iron/
14 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (2013, Summer). Metals of Concern in Multivitamins. Retrieved from https://www.pcrm.org/health/reports/metals-of-concern-in-common-multivitamins
15 Iron Disorders Institute. (n.d.). Symptoms of Hemochromatosis. Retrieved from http://www.hemochromatosis.org/#overview