Iron in Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

sliced meat on brown surface

Iron Nutrition from Meatless Food Sources

Iron is a mineral needed to keep our red blood cells healthy. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout our bodies. The blood protein called hemoglobin has iron at its core.

Iron is a trace mineral, meaning we need only small amounts in our diets. We can’t make it in our bodies and must get it from dietary sources.

Food Sources of Iron

Red meat is high in iron, but it is also found in fish, poultry, and eggs. Some vegetarian sources of iron are:

  • Legumes (beans)(lentils: 6.6 mg / cup)
  • Dried fruits (0.9 mg / 5 apricots)
  • Leafy green vegetables (cooked kale: 1.1 mg / cup)
  • Soy products (firm tofu: 1.3 mg / 1/4 block)

In fact, there is some iron in nearly all plant foods. The United States Department of Agriculture provides a list of foods with their iron content.

Meatless meat substitutes like faux deli slices, veggie dogs, and commercial ground soy protein are usually fortified with iron to match the amount found in meat. Soy milk and other dairy alternatives are not usually fortified, but soy milk contains iron from the soy beans.

Amount of Iron in a Meatless Diet

Women and men need different amounts of iron.

Generally, vegetarian women and teenage girls should aim to consume 30 mg iron per day. Vegetarian men and teenage boys need about 11 mg and 14 mg, respectively. In contrast, adult meat-eating women need only 18 mg per day.

Strategies to Get Enough Iron

  • Pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C. Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables converts ferric iron to ferrous iron, which is more easily absorbed. Vitamin C also partially negates the effect of phytates (which block iron absorption).
  • Eat natural, unprocessed nutrient-rich foods. Processed foods have been stripped of some of their nutrients, including iron.
  • Supplement if necessary. Iron deficiency is common around the world. Its symptoms include tiredness and difficulty concentrating. A doctor can confirm whether supplements are needed. Be sure to avoid supplements that contain iron from animal sources.

Iron Bioavailability

Bioavailability means how much of the iron we eat can be absorbed and used by our bodies.

There are three reasons a vegetarian or vegan diet may not provide enough iron:

1. They do not contain red meat (and may not contain eggs).

Plant-based diets can be very high in iron, but be wary of switching from a meat-and-potatoes diet to a plant-based one without replacing this source of iron.

2. The iron in meatless diets is less bioavailable than iron from animal sources.

There are two types of iron, referred to as heme (ferrous) and non-heme (ferric) iron. Iron from plant foods is always non-heme, while meat and animal products (eggs) contain heme iron.

3. Vegetarian and vegan diets may be high in iron inhibitors called phytates and oxalates.

Phytates and oxalates inhibit the absorption of iron and are present in fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, wine, spinach, leafy green vegetables, and some food additives. Luckily, most of these foods contain significant amounts of iron that offset the effects of phytates.

Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency is more common in girls and women than in boys and men because females lose blood through monthly menstruation.

  • Vegetarians and vegans are not more likely than meat-eaters to be deficient, but those who don’t eat meat may have lower body iron stores.
  • Well-planned vegetarian diets can supply enough iron for kids and adults.

References

Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc; National Academy Press: Washington, D.C.