Iron is an important nutrient for vegans to be aware of as iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies world-wide. While it’s possible to meet iron intake requirements on a vegan diet, careful planning and consideration is often necessary, especially for women who have higher iron requirements.
- What is Iron?
- What Does Iron Do in the Body?
- Daily Intake Requirement of Iron for Vegans
- Iron Deficiency
- How to Consume Enough Iron as a Vegan
- Vegan Food Sources of Iron
- Iron Supplements for Vegans
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What Is Iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that is required for many important functions in the body. Iron is critical to carry oxygen around the body as oxygen molecules will bind with the iron for transport.
Iron deficiency is an extremely common nutrition problem for both vegans and non-vegans.
What Does Iron Do in the Body?
- Oxygen transport: iron is needed to produce a molecule called hemoglobin which is a critical component of red blood cells. Hemoglobin carries oxygen around the body so all cells have the oxygen needed to function. Iron also transports oxygen in muscles via myoglobin molecules.
- Energy production: iron is needed to produce ATP (the body’s energy source).
- Immune system: iron is used by the immune system to destroy some types of bacteria.
- DNA synthesis: iron is needed for proper formation of DNA.
If there are low levels of iron in the body, or an overt iron-deficiency, any of these functions could become impaired.
Daily Intake Requirements of Iron for Vegans
Health Canada recommends that plant-based eaters consume 1.8x more iron per day compared to people who consume a “mixed” diet of plant-based and animal-based foods 4. While there is debate over this recommendation, it’s the best we have until further research is conducted to examine the long-term effects of a vegan diet on iron absorption/ iron deficiency.
The recommended dietary allowance for iron varies by age and gender. For women age 19-50 years (menstruating women) the recommendation is 18mg of iron per day 4. For men over the age of 19 years and women over 50 years (or after menopause), the recommendation is 8 mg per day 4.
After taking into account that plant-based eaters need 1.8x more iron, vegetarian women age 19-50 need about 32 mg per day while vegetarian men need about 14 mg per day.
- Iron stores become depleted: the body stores a small amount of iron. The first stage of deficiency is when these stores become depleted. There typically aren’t any signs or symptoms of low iron levels at this stage.
- Early functional deficiency: iron stores are now depleted and the body starts to function without iron, producing red blood cells that lack adequate amounts of hemoglobin molecules. Overt iron-deficiency anemia is not present, but some signs and symptoms such as low energy levels and difficulty concentrating may be present.
- Iron-deficiency anemia: this is the classic outcome of iron-deficiency. The body can no longer function properly due to low iron levels and red blood cells become small, pale, and don’t function properly.
Many symptoms of low iron intake or iron-deficiency anemia are related to the first function of iron: oxygen transport.
Fatigue, rapid heart rate, heart palpitations, rapid breathing (after little exertion), pale skin, brittle fingernails, loss of appetite, general feelings of weakness, hair loss, impaired immunity, and lack of concentration are some of the most common signs and symptoms of iron-deficiency 1, 2, 3.
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, go see a doctor for assessment immediately.
How to Consume Enough Iron as a Vegan
There are certain factors that can inhibit or enhance the absorption of iron from plant-based foods. These are important for vegans to be aware of as they can impact the iron status of a vegan who is completely reliant on absorbing iron from plants.
To optimize absorption of iron from plant-based foods:
- Consume adequate vitamin C with each meal (vegetables and fruits, especially citrus).
- Avoid coffee, tea and calcium supplements an hour before or after a meal.
- Consume enough lysine in your diet (primarily from legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and beans).
- Consider using a cast iron pan or iron fish (iron fish is a piece of cast iron that can be added to food as it cooks, releasing iron into the food).
Vegan Food Sources of Iron
Vegetables High in Iron
Leafy green vegetables including spinach, swiss chard, collard greens, kale and broccoli tend to be vegetables that are higher in iron 1. These leafy greens are all excellent food sources of iron for vegans as they contain many other important nutrients.
Dried figs, raisins, green peas (technically a legume), cooked tomatoes (like tomato sauce) and sweet potato are some other vegetables and fruits high in iron for vegans 1.
Other Vegan Foods Sources of Iron
Iron fortification into cereals and refined grain products (including pasta, white flour and white rice) is mandatory in Canada 5. Fortification of iron into plant-based and vegan meat substitutes is also mandatory so these can be a convenient food source of iron for vegans 5.
Some plant-based milk alternatives may be fortified with iron as well. Check the label to see how much iron is present in these vegan foods.
Iron Supplements for Vegans
Routine iron supplementation for vegans is not generally recommended unless chronic low levels of iron are confirmed by blood test and/or the diet is low in iron. If you have a history of low iron levels, speak with your doctor or dietitian before making any dietary changes and before starting/ stopping any supplements.
If a vegan has suboptimal levels of iron (early functional deficiency) iron supplementation or vitamin C supplementation may be required 3. Speak to your doctor or dietitian find a plan that works for you.
If a vegan is diagnosed with iron deficiency, doctors often recommend iron supplements appropriate for the individual. Sometimes people prefer to correct nutrient deficiencies through food alone but it is always recommended to listen to your doctors recommendations. Do not start or stop taking supplements without speaking to your doctor first.
Once iron levels are back within normal range, work with your doctor to find a plan that works for you to maintain these iron levels. Some doctors may believe meat or animal products are necessary to maintain iron levels, but to my knowledge, there’s no research to support this. Meat may be a convenient source of easily absorbed iron, but it is not the only source, and a vegan diet with adequate intake of iron-rich foods along with vitamin C should be able to meet an individual’s needs 1, 3. If you have low iron even with an adequate intake, speak with your doctor to see if there’s something else that might be inhibiting iron absorption.
Summary: Iron for Vegans
Iron is an essential nutrient for vegans to consider. Vegan diets can provide adequate levels of iron, however absorption is an important factor to consider. Health Canada currently recommends for plant-based eaters to consume 1.8x more iron compared to people eating a “mixed” diet.
Eating foods high in iron with a source of vitamin C is the recommended way for vegans to meet iron intake requirements as this can significantly improve iron absorption from plant-based foods. Routine supplementation with iron for vegans is typically not needed unless you have difficulty maintaining healthy iron levels through food alone. Work with your doctor and a dietitian to find and eating pattern and/or supplement plan that works best for you.
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- Iron Part 1—Basics
- Review on iron and its importance for human health
- Iron Part 2—Research
- Dietary Reference Intakes
- Foods to Which Vitamins, Mineral Nutrients and Amino Acids May or Must be Added
- The Regulation of Iron Absorption and Homeostasis
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
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