Iron is an essential nutrient for vegans to consume. While it’s possible for vegans to get enough iron, careful planning is often needed to prevent deficiency, especially for people with higher iron requirements.
Continue reading to learn how to meet your needs for iron on a plant-based diet.
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What is Iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that supports many critical bodily functions. It’s an essential mineral because the body cannot produce iron. Humans must consume enough iron to meet their body’s needs.
Iron deficiency is a world-wide problem, especially among people who have an active menstrual cycle. It’s a common concern for both vegans and non-vegans 1.
What Does Iron Do for the Body?
Iron has 4 main functions in the body:
- Oxygen transport: Iron is needed to create a molecule called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen around the body, and all cells in the body use oxygen to function 2.
- Energy production: Iron is needed to produce ATP, the body’s energy source 3, 4.
- Immune system: Iron plays a role in immune system regulation. Interestingly, too little and too much iron both seem to impact immune function 2, 4, 5, 6.
- DNA synthesis: Iron is needed for the proper formation of DNA 7.
When talking about iron deficiency, most people focus on the first function: oxygen transport. Many of the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are related to this function.
If someone has low levels of iron, or an overt iron-deficiency, any of these functions could become impaired.
How Much Iron do People Need?
Iron requirements are broken down by age range and sex. The following chart shows Health Canada’s current iron recommendations, in milligrams (mg) per day 8:
Higher iron requirements for women aged 14-50 assumes an active menstrual cycle. Of course, menstruation can start earlier, end earlier, continue longer, and occur in people who don’t identify as female.
It’s best to ask your doctor or dietitian which category best suits your needs. Generally speaking, if you have an active menstrual cycle, your iron needs are increased.
Iron Requirements for Vegetarians and Vegans
There is a special note regarding daily iron needs in the Health Canada reference charts. It states that:
“The requirement for iron is 1.8 times higher for vegetarians due to the lower bioavailability of iron from a vegetarian diet.” 8
There is a lot of debate over this recommendation because it’s based solely from research that shows iron from plant-based foods isn’t absorbed as readily as iron from meat 3, 9. While this is true, there are many factors that can improve or limit iron absorption which are discussed below.
Adequate research to determine the true iron requirements for vegans or vegetarians isn’t available.
Heme vs. Non-heme Iron
You may wonder why there’s some controversy about vegetarian iron sources exists. It’s based on the two types of iron that can be found in foods:
- Heme iron
- Non-heme iron
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods. The body has a harder time absorbing this type of iron 3, 9. Non-heme iron absorption can be impacted by many factors as well; both to increase or decrease absorption.
When it comes to nutrition, it’s not just how much you eat, but also how much the body absorbs. If you absorb less non-heme iron, you need to consume more to meet daily intake needs.
There’s lots of interesting research about these two types of iron, and the pros and cons of each. The way humans absorb and regulate iron status is complex and won’t be detailed here.
Vegan diets exclusively contain non-heme iron. It’s possible to consume and absorb enough plant-based iron, with proper diet planning.
- Iron stores become depleted: The body stores a small amount of iron; deficiency begins when these stores become depleted. No signs or symptoms are typical at this stage.
- Early functional deficiency: With iron stores depleted, the body starts to function without iron. Red blood cells are produced with fewer hemoglobin molecules and less oxygen is moved through the body. Some signs and symptoms may be present including low energy levels and difficulty concentrating.
- Iron-deficiency anemia: At this point, the body can no longer function properly due to low iron levels. Red blood cells become smaller (because they have fewer hemoglobin molecules). Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are likely present at this point.
Signs and Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
Most signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are related to oxygen transportation. Without enough iron, the body can’t make hemoglobin molecules. Since hemoglobin helps transport oxygen, less oxygen moves around the body.
- General feelings of weakness
- Lethargy, fatigue, lack of energy
- Impaired cognition/ mental functions
- Diminished immunity
- Altered exercise endurance
- Impaired body temperature regulation
- Pregnancy complications
- Inflammation of the tongue
- Irritation in the corners of the mouth
- Spoon-shaped nails (where the edges curve upwards)
- Lack of concentration
- Pale skin
- Dry skin
- Hair loss
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.
Iron Deficiency in Vegans
A recent (2021) review found vegetarians had, on average, lower levels of iron in their blood compared to omnivores 1.
This study found woman who menstruate, regardless of diet type, were 4 times more likely to have iron deficiency compared to people who do not menstruate. Furthermore, iron deficiency was more prevalent among vegetarians, compared to omnivores, regardless of whether they menstruated 1.
Certain factors (including inflammation) can increase iron in the blood. When this study removed these confounding factors, it didn’t find a difference in the prevalence of iron deficiency between vegetarians and omnivores who didn’t menstruate 1.
Even with these factors removed, vegetarians who menstruate still had more iron deficiency compared to omnivores who menstruate 1.
How to Get Enough Iron as a Vegan
Eating foods high in iron and using strategies to improve iron absorption are key for vegans to get enough iron.
Generally, iron is found in whole grains (and fortified refined grains), legumes, seeds and leafy green vegetables. There are smaller amounts of iron in nuts and some other vegetables or fruits. Canned tomatoes and dried fruits tend to have larger amounts of iron.
Green peas, hearts of palm, olives and dark chocolate also have higher iron content.
In Canada, iron is fortified into refined grains and meat alternatives (vegan meat substitutes) 12. It may be fortified into other foods 12. Read the label to see how much iron is in any packaged food.
Vegan Iron Sources: Foods High in Plant-based Iron
Here is a list of common plant-based foods that are high in iron. The data is from the Canadian Nutrient File and is based on foods available in Canada 13. All values are rounded to the nearest whole number (unless the value was under 1 mg).
I’ve tried to provide “realistic” serving sizes for each type of food. All serving sizes are provided by weight. If you use volume measurements, I typically used the following:
- Beans, lentils and soy products are for a 250 mL (1 C) portion
- Nuts and seeds are for a 60 mL (¼ C) portion
- Nut/ seed butters are a 30 mL (2 tbsp) portion
- Leafy greens and other vegetables are for 250 mL (1 C) raw
- Grains are for 250 mL (1 C) cooked
|Food and Serving||Amount of Iron (mg)|
|Lentils, boiled, 209 g||7|
|Chickpeas, boiled, 173 g||5|
|Kidney beans, boiled, 187 g||4|
|Lima beans, boiled, 180 g||4|
|Black beans, boiled, 182 g||4|
|Navy beans, boiled, 192 g||5|
|White beans, boiled, 190 g||7|
|Tofu, medium firm or firm, raw, 262 g||4|
|Edamame, boiled, 190 g||5|
|Tempeh, 175 g||5|
|Cashews, dry roasted, 35 g||2|
|Almonds, dry roasted, 35 g||1|
|Walnuts, black, 32 g||1|
|Pecans, 28 g||1|
|Pistachios, raw, 31 g||1|
|Sunflower seeds, hulled, 36 g||2|
|Chia seeds, 43 g||3|
|Flaxseeds, ground, 28 g||2|
|Hemp seeds, 41 g||5|
|Sesame seeds, 38 g||2|
|Tahini, 28 g||2|
|Peanuts (Valencia), 37 g||1|
|Peanut butter, natural, 32 g||1|
|Kale, raw, 70 g||1|
|Spinach, raw, 32 g||1|
|Beet greens, raw, 40 g||1|
|Swiss chard, 38 g||1|
|Broccoli, raw, 93 g||1|
|Brussels sprouts, raw, 93 g||1|
|Quinoa, cooked, 195 g||3|
|Amaranth, cooked, 260 g||5|
|Spelt, cooked, 205 g||3|
|Oats, large flakes, cooked, 250 g||2|
|Whole wheat flour, 127 g||4|
|Barley, cooked, 166 g||2|
|Buckwheat groats, cooked, 178 g||2|
|Rice, brown, cooked, 205 g||1|
|Molasses, fancy, 15 mL (21 g)||1|
|Dried figs, 50 g||1|
|Dried apricots, 50 g||1|
|Raisins, 50 g||0.5|
|Prunes, 50 g||0.5|
|Green peas, cooked, 170 g||3|
|Corn, cooked, 174 g||1|
|Tomato puree, canned, 264 g||5|
|Tomato paste, canned, 35 g||1|
|Sundried tomatoes, 14 g||1|
|Sweet potato, baked, peeled, 211 g||1|
|White potato, skin on, boiled, 165 g||1|
|Beets, cooked, 180 g||1|
|White button mushrooms, raw, 100 g||0.5|
|Palm hearts, canned, 154 g||5|
|Olives, canned, 100 g||3|
|Dark chocolate, 70-85% cacao, 50 g||6|
|Soy milk, 250 mL||1|
How to Increase Iron Absorption
There are certain factors that can inhibit or enhance the absorption of iron from plant-based foods (non-heme iron). These are important for vegans because they can impact how much iron the body absorbs.
The best way to increase non-heme iron absorption is to include vitamin C with any meal that contains plant-based iron 3, 9. Since iron is in a variety of plant-based foods, it’s ideal to include vitamin C with each meal.
Adding vitamin C to meals when practical is one of the best ways to help ensure adequate iron absorption.
What Decreases Iron Absorption?
- Phytates (found in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds)
- Polyphenols including tannins (coffee, tea and red wine)
- Milk and egg protein
Phytates are found in many foods high in iron. Soaking, sprouting, fermenting and cooking these foods can significantly lower phytate content. That’s why it’s best to always soak grains, beans and lentils (then discard the soaking water) before cooking.
High amounts of calcium in a meal may decrease iron absorption 3, 9. Likewise, calcium supplements can lower how much iron your body absorbs, so take calcium supplements at least one hour before or after a meal. Keep in mind that many antacids use calcium carbonate and provide high levels of calcium. For optimal iron absorption, avoid taking these at mealtimes too.
Vegan Iron Supplements
However, there are vegans who struggle to maintain adequate iron levels or have iron deficiency. In these cases, it’s important to speak with your doctor or dietitian for the best course of treatment.
Treatments may include improving the amount of iron in the diet, improving iron absorption and/or using iron supplements 14.
Do not make changes to your diet without speaking with your primary healthcare provider first. Too much iron can cause harm so it’s very important to be monitored if taking iron supplements 14.
A diet-first approach is typically recommended to meet vegan nutrient needs including iron. Supplements should only be taken by those who need them, under advisement of a doctor and/or dietitian.
Vegan Recipes High in Iron
Any recipe that features high-iron foods from the list above should offer a good amount of iron per serving. You can search for any of those ingredients to find tasty recipes!
Here are some top favorite high iron vegan recipes with the iron amount per serving:
- Lentil spaghetti sauce (8 mg)
- Burrito bowls (7 mg)
- Lentil sloppy joes (6 mg)
- Stuffed acorn squash (6 mg)
- Tofu fried rice (6 mg)
- Lentil walnut tacos (6 mg)
- One-pot hummus pasta (5 mg)
Summary: Vegan Iron
Iron is an essential nutrient for vegans and must be consumed through nutritious foods. Plant-based diets rely on non-heme iron which is not as readily absorbed as animal-based heme iron. Due to lower absorption, vegans likely have higher iron intake requirements.
People who menstruate have higher iron requirements and need to pay closer attention to this nutrient as they’re more likely to become iron deficient.
Vegans should aim to eat high-iron foods along with a source of vitamin C. Avoiding coffee, tea and calcium supplements around meals is also good practice.
Iron supplements aren’t routinely recommended to vegans unless there are challenges meeting iron through diet alone.
Always speak with a doctor before changing your diet or taking new supplements. Please read our full website disclaimer.
3. Dietary iron
10. Iron deficiency
This reference list is not intended to be comprehensive.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.