One of the most common sayings about veganism is that a plant-based diet is low in iron. The reason this saying came about is from the difference between the two types of iron: the type found in plants (called non-HEME iron) and the type found in animals (called HEME iron). The reason this is important is because it’s more difficult for our bodies to absorb non-HEME (plant) iron.
Many studies have been done on vegan’s and vegetarian’s iron levels and the majority have found that women (who need much greater iron intake than men due to menstrating) can become deficient more easily on a plant-based diet. However, other studies have actually shown the opposite: that a vegan diet can have equal if not greater iron intake than an animal diet. In fact, according to The Medical Journal of Australia, “Vegetarians who eat a varied and well-balanced diet are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia than non-vegetarians.” The key is exactly that: paying attention to your diet to ensure that you are meeting your nutritional needs (i.e., eating a well-balanced varied diet).
It is true that non-heme iron does not absorb as well; according to a study done by Oxford University, the difference was only about half as much: 15% of the meat (HEME) iron was absorbed, vs. 7% of the plant (non-HEME) iron. However, while that is certainly an important thing to be aware of, many plants actually contain much more iron than meat, so when you’re taking in more than double the amount of iron from plants than you would from meat, it’s really a moot point that only half as much is absorbed. (Again though, that’s if you’re taking in the right (high-iron) plants.)
The recommended daily intake for iron varies based on age and for adults, gender. There are special requirements for pregnant and lactating women as well. Due to the decreased absorption rate of plant-based iron, the National Institutes of Health recommend that plant-based eaters consume 1.8x as much iron as people who eat animals. See the chart below to determine your recommended iron amount per day.
It’s important to note that many food labels list a daily value percentage (such as 15%) which is based on the standard recommended daily value for adult women of 18 mg. If you’re a woman, you can roughly use half the percentage number as a close estimate for the for the vegan woman percentage. However, to get an accurate amount (especially if your a man) it’s better to add up the milligram listings on your various food products if they are available, otherwise you’ll need to do some math. The math is: percentage listed times 18 = milligram total. So for example, if a product lists 15% DV, that means you multiply 0.15 x 18 which equals 2.7 mg of iron.
Now, here’s some comparisons to help you better understand why getting iron from plant-based sources is not as difficult as you might think. A 6 oz. sirloin only contains 3 mg of iron! That’s actually slightly less iron than a cup of whole wheat pasta, tofu, or even canned tomatoes (all of which could be used to make Italian tomato sauce meal that contains 3x the amount of iron in that sirloin and has a good amount of vitamin C from the tomato sauce as well). If you want to focus on getting iron from just one food for comparison, black beans have almost 10 mg per cup! Even better, go for pink beans which have a whopping 14.22 mg per cup!
Another really interesting point about iron from meat is that only 55-60% is actually HEME iron; the rest is non-HEME iron (the kind typically found in plants). Therefore the actual difference between animal and plant iron intake is significantly smaller. (Source: Iron Disorders Institute, Iron We Consume) It should also be noted that vegans now have a source of HEME iron; HEME iron can be found in the roots of soy plant, and scientists have figured out how to genetically engineer yeast (insert the DNA from the soy plants into yeast) so that the yeast will produce plant HEME iron when fermented. One common place to find this new HEME iron is in Burger King’s Impossible Whopper.
Factors that Affect Iron Absorption
It’s also important to note that the absorption of plant iron can supposedly be improved by eating foods that contain vitamin C at the same time, so if you do pay close attention to what you’re eating, you can easily affect your intake level.
Some studies have also shown that eating calcium with iron can further decreases how much iron is absorbed, however other studies (including the Oxford study) did not find this to be true. Luckily, the vegan diet tends to be low in calcium (which means that it may be best to consume a calcium-fortified food such as non-dairy milk) so a plant-based meal is less likely to interfere with iron absorbtion due to calcium content than a traditional dairy-laden diet. However. if you are taking calcium either as supplement or as a fortified food, consuming that separately rather than with a meal may help to prevent any potential calcium interference with iron absorption.
Vegan Foods High In Iron
In general these foods tend to be excellent vegan iron sources:
- Most legumes
- Soy products like tofu and edamame
- Most seeds (pumpkin, squash, sunflower, and sesame)
- Some vegetables, particularly asparagus
- Cocoa powder
- Some dried fruits, particularly apricots
Cocoa (such as cocoa powder) is a surprisingly high iron content food, which is why we add that to our Easy Day Smoothie recipe (just 2 tbsp = 4mg).
The reason we’re listing general food groups rather than specific foods is because the actual iron content level will vary (based on the growing conditions, etc.), so you may find one brand of chickpeas that’s 15% DV for iron and another that’s 6%. That’s an actual comparison: the Target brand organic chickpeas contain 15% DV for iron per serving, whereas the Walmart brand organic chickpeas contain only 6% (i.e., if you want more iron from legumes, get the canned ones from Target rather than Walmart). The good news is that seeds and legumes are two staple protein groups in most vegan diets, so you’ve likely already got a few good iron sources in your menu.
One surprising source of iron is dried fruits; according to the USDA Nutrient Database, some high iron fruits include dehydrated apricots (7.51 mg), dehydrated peaches (5.47 mg), dried currants (2.71 mg) and dried pears (2.6 mg). None of those were available at my local shop, so I opted for some dried mango which had 10% DV of iron according to the label. The reason that the fruit should be dried rather than fresh is because drying removes the water, which concentrates the nutrients and makes the food much smaller, therefore you are able to eat more fruits when they are dried. For example, one cup of sliced apricots contains only 0.64 mg of iron, whereas 1 cup of dried apricots contains 2.6 mg and 1 cup of dehydrated apricots (even more moisture removed) contains 7.5 mg..
Other Sources of Iron
Another option to increase the amount of iron in our diets is to use cast iron cookware. The iron is absorbed into the food as it cooks, significantly increasing the dosage. Again, eating a varied diet rich in common vegan protein sources such as beans and seeds should provide a significant portion if not a full portion of the daily iron requirement for most people, however a cast iron pan is always a good option as well if needed. Keep in mind if you are buying a new one that you want to be sure it has been seasoned with only vegan products.
Iron supplements are of course another option, however it is important to consult with a doctor before taking any supplement. In particular, iron is one of the supplements that could do more harm than good, and so on they should be taken with a doctor’s supervision.
High-Iron Vegan Products
Below are some high-iron foods and products that you can use to boost your daily iron content. (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no cost to you.)