Where do vegetarians and vegans get their iron?
You may have heard that meat contains a lot of iron. But don’t worry, so do plants! You can definitely get enough iron on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Here are answers to frequently asked iron questions and practical suggestions for meeting your iron needs, all backed up with quotes from registered dietitians. All information in quotes comes from an article by registered dietitian Reed Mangel, the American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegetarian diets, and an article by registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno, and an article written by registered dietitian Jack Norris.
1. How much iron do I need?
You will need about 8 to 18 milligrams of iron per day. However, “recommendations for iron for vegetarians (including vegans) may be as much as 1.8 times higher than for non-vegetarians.” (Reed Mangels, RD) If this is true, you will need from 14.4 through 32.4 milligrams of iron every day
Since iron is easy to receive on a vegetarian or vegan diet without supplements or fortified foods, you do not need to worry too much about these numbers. Just follow the directions in question four, and you will reach your iron requirements.
2. Is it possible to get enough iron on a vegetarian or vegan diet?
As you can receive enough of every nutrient on a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can certainly receive enough iron. The American Dietetic Association states that “a [total] vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients [protein, n-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D and B-12]”
According to registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno, “many vegetarians’ stores are “low-normal,” but this does not mean less than ideal!”
Also, registered dietitian Reed Mangels says that “vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters.”
3. Are animals a better source of iron than plants?
According to registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno, “there are two types of iron — heme, which is found in animal foods, and non-heme, which is from plants. It is true that heme iron (the kind from animals) is better absorbed than non-heme iron.” However, according to registered dietitian Reed Mangels, “adding a vitamin C source to a meal increases non-heme iron absorption up to six-fold which makes the absorption of non-heme iron as good or better than that of heme iron.”
4. How can I get enough iron?
- Eat high iron foods. See question five for a list of these foods.
- Eat high vitamin C foods while you eat high iron foods in order to increase iron absorption. See question six for a list of these foods.
- To be super careful, avoid coffee, tea and chocolate at meals. Matt Ruscigno says that “coffee (even decaf!) and tea contain tannins that inhibit iron absorption.”
5. What are some high iron foods?
- Beans (pinto beans, lima beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, green beans, etc)
- Soy (soybeans, tofu, tempeh, etc)
- Peas (black eyed peas)
- Brussels Sprouts
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Turnip Greens
- Beet greens
- Dried Peaches
- Dried Apricots
- Sun dried tomatoes
- Prune Juice
- Brown Rice
- Fortified cereals
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat bread
- Sunflower seeds
6. What are some high vitamin C foods?
- Citrus (orange, tangerine, grapefruit, etc.)
- Green Leafy Vegetables (broccoli, kale, collards, swiss chard)
- Brussels Sprouts
- Bell peppers (yellow, red, green)
- Broccoli and Cauliflower
- Thyme and parsley
- Sweet potatoes
Disclaimer: Do not take this information as medical advice. I am not an expert in nutrition, but I cite many credentialed doctors and registered dietitians. Please see a qualified healthcare professional for advice.
Mangels, Reed, PhD, RD. “Iron in the Vegan Diet.” The Vegetarian Resource Group. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php>.
Craig, Winston J., PhD, MPH, RD, and Ann R. Mangels, PhD, RD, LDN, FADA. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109.7 (2009): 1266-282. Print.
Ruscigno, Matt, MPH, RD. “What Every Vegetarian Needs to Know About Iron.” No Meat Athlete. N.p., Oct. 2011. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://www.nomeatathlete.com/iron-for-vegetarians/>.
Norris, Jack, RD. “Iron.” Vegan Health. Vegan Outreach, June 2013. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://veganhealth.org/articles/iron>.