Green-leafy vegetables, dried fruit and legumes are some of the best vegan and plant-based sources of iron.
Iron is one of the better-known trace minerals crucial for health. It is also one that most vegan and plant-based eaters get worried about becoming deficient in once they stop eating animal sources. That worry is justified since we absorb iron better from animal sources than from plants.
In saying that, it doesn’t mean that we cannot get adequate amounts of iron from plants to keep us healthy. We just need to be smart with our food choices and combine foods in a way that allow us to absorb the maximum amount of iron when we eat iron-rich foods.
Why we need iron
Iron exists in every cell of your body. Most of it is bound to the protein haemoglobin, which carries oxygen to your cells and tissues and takes carbon dioxide out of them. Iron is also a component of other crucial enzymes in your body that you need for energy production. It is also bound to a protein called myoglobin that delivers oxygen to your skeletal muscle and heart cells.
Iron, therefore, helps you feel energised and gives you the ‘rosy cheek’ look. If your iron levels are low, you produce less haemoglobin and therefore supply less oxygen to the tissues in your body. This can lead to fatigue, headaches, dizziness, weight loss, lowered immunity and ultimately anaemia.
The amount of iron you need as an individual depends on your gender and age. Infants, growing children, adolescents, premenopausal and pregnant women have the greatest iron requirements. Men need very little iron, and they can be at risk of iron overload if they take iron supplements without a doctor’s recommendation.
Infants, 0-6 months
Infants, 7-12 months
Children, 1-3 years
Children, 4-8 years
Males, 9-13 years
Females, 9-13 years
Males, 14-18 years
Females, 14-18 years
Males, ≥19 years
Females, 19-50 years
Females, ≥51 years
Pregnancy, 14-50 years
Where vegans and plant-based eaters get iron
Iron is abundant in many plant foods. Whole grains. legumes, nuts and seeds are some of the best sources of iron. Dried fruits, molasses and even some fresh fruits have moderate amounts of iron.
Low-iron diets and poor absorption of iron in the small intestine are the most common reasons for iron deficiency. Plant sources also only contain the nonheme form of iron, which our bodies find difficult to use and absorb. This can put vegans and plant-based eaters at a risk of developing iron-deficiency. Thankfully, there are many ways to improve our absorption and maintain healthy levels.
- Eat foods rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits and vegetables) when eating iron-rich foods
- Foods rich in manganese (pineapples, lima beans, blackberries and raspberries) improve iron absorption
- Cooking with an iron skillet adds iron to your food and makes more of it available for absorption
- Avoid antacids as they lower stomach acid levels, which ultimately reduces iron absorption
There are so many sources of iron for vegans and plant-based eaters. As long as you’re eating adequate amounts of food and you don’t have any absorption problems, you should meet your daily iron needs. If you’re concerned or experiencing symptoms of iron-deficiency, speak to your GP or physician for more advice.