How to Get Iron on a Vegan Diet

how to get enough iron on a vegan diet

Are you wondering about how to get your iron on a plant-based diet? Then you've come to the right corner of the internet. 

The mineral iron is not only found in rocks, mountains, cast iron pans and houses but it is also floating around in our bodies.

And in doing it ensures that essential enzymes can be manufactured and that vital body processes such as transportation of oxygen works properlu.

Since ancient times iron has been utilized with great benefit to mankind. In 2017 it is used as a weapon by anti-vegans to criticize a vegan diet. Evolution, yay!

There are a lot of misconception when it comes to this nutrient, and especially in regards to a vegetarian and vegan diet.

So what are we supposed to do in order to get our precious iron on plant-based diets? Well let's find out. 

Iron and the vegan diet

steel chain

This essential trace mineral is part of the enzymes hemoglobin and myoglobin which are responsible for tranport of oxygen in the blood and muscles.

Getting enough in your diet is quite important. Without sufficient iron you can develop anemia, a condition where there is not enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body's tissues.

Iron is also necessary for growth, normal cellular functioning, and synthesis of hormones and connective tissue.

The concern of an iron deficiency eating plant-based is based on several factors.

Phytic acid

legumes in a skillet

Many iron-rich plant foods such as grains and legumes are also rich in a compound called phytic acid, or phytate. The theory is that phytate acts as an anti-nutrient; binding with iron in the digestive system and preventing it from getting absorbed. 

However the hypothesis of an increase in legumes and grains causing iron deficiency seems unlikely. There are studies indicating that eating a plant-based diet will cause adaptations in the gut microbiota so it becomes more proficient in degrading phytate. In fact, a high-phytate diet seems to enhance non-heme iron absorption.

For sources and more information on phytic acid you should read this article.

Non-heme iron

Meat, despite all of its many flaws, is a pretty good source of iron. 

Going vegan means exclusion of this food - if you previously relied solely on meat for iron this means you will have to replace it with iron-rich plant foods. 

But there is one more aspect to consider - the form in which the iron is delivered.

Meat, poultry and fish contain a chemical form of iron called heme iron. 

Plant foods on the other hand contain what is called non-heme iron. 

Heme iron is more efficiently absorbed by the body and isn't as sensitive to various inhibitors such as phytic acid. Putting two and two together, substituting non-heme iron for heme iron may negatively impact body iron status.

While this seems like a negative at a first glance, it might be that this is a positive twist for your health.

Benefits of non-heme iron

soy beans

We know that heme iron is more readily absorbed and used by the body. Now is this necessarily a good thing?

Non-heme iron is more responsive than heme iron to differences in body iron status.

Basically what this means is that you will not absorb much non-heme iron if you already have high levels of iron. On the other hand those with very low iron stores will absorb non-heme iron almost as well as heme iron.

When iron accumulates in excess it can generate oxadative stress in the body, which is something we want to avoid.

As noted, absorption of non-heme iron depends on current body iron stores. We can think of this as a "defense mechanism", where excessive amounts doesn't get absorbed and harmful oxadative reactions therefore are reduced.

Heme-iron does not have this built-in defense mechanism. And this is not only a hypothesis I created for the sake of vegan propaganda, many studies have linked heme iron with an increased risk of stroke, stomach cancer as well as coronary heart disease.

Vegeterians and vegans do have lower iron stores compared to omnivores. However these levels are still within the accepted range - which means we're at no greater risk for iron deficiency than omnivores. To maintain homeostasis the body does also adapt to dietary non-heme iron by increasing absorption and decreasing losses.

Getting iron on a vegan diet

nuts and seeds

The RDA established by the Food & Nutrition Board for iron is 8 mg and 18 mg for adult men and women, respectively.

They also recommend iron intake for vegetarians to be 1,8 higher than that of omnivores. This recommendation is based on the factors we've discussed: lower bioavailability of non-heme iron due to phytic acid intake and thelack of heme iron.

What it doesn't take into account is the long term adaption to plant-sources of iron, a high-phytate diet's ability to mitigate the negative effects of phytate and also some tricks to enhance iron absorption such as vitamin C (which I'll elaborate on later).

So if you want to be cautious, probably on the verge of hypochondria, you can aim for this 80% higher iron intake.

Anyways, it's not very difficult getting heaps of iron on a plant-based diet. I usually get around 40 mg per day with no particular effort. 

Vegan sources of iron

The plant foods highest in iron are legumes and nuts and seeds. If you make sure to eat plenty of these I would bet that you're not going to experience any iron deficiency.

Other whole grains such as oatmeal and brown rice, starchy vegetables as in potatoes, and vegetables such as peppers, spinach and broccoli all contribute towards daily iron requirements.

Below is a list detailing some good sources of iron.

good sources of vegan iron

Anecdotally when I log all my food in I more or less always surpass 40 mg iron. Probably due to the copious amounts of red lentils I eat on a daily basis.

Seriously the misconception that plant foods doesn't provide iron is just incredibly wrong

Natural enhancers of iron bioavailability

There are a couple of tricks you can employ in order to enhance iron absorption.

Vitamin C

orange vitamin c

Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, has been shown to have a strong promoting effect on iron absorption with about 50 mg required for maximal effect. When consumed at the same time with a source of non-heme iron it helps reduce the inhibitory effects of phytate.

So to absorb the most iron make sure to have some vitamin C along with your source of iron. 50 mg of ascorbic acid is roughly half a cup of broccoli, quarter cup of red bell peppers or an orange. Naturally a whole food plant-based diet incorporates a lot of fruits and vegetables rich in ascorbic acid so you might not even have to actively think about this.

Presoaking and sprouting

Presoaking and/or sprouting legumes, grains and seeds, leavening of breads and fermentation of foods (tofu, tempeh etc) can all also help to reduce phytate content and enhance iron absorption.

Surprising one more way to improve iron bioavailability is by eating garlic or onion. One study found that adding small amounts of garlic or onion to grains and pulses had a positive promoting influence on iron absorption up to 73.3%!

Sorry caffeine users for the next paragraph to come.

Avoid coffee and tea

Certain compounds found in tea and coffee, tannins and polyphenols, affects absorption negatively. Hence the last advice would be to limit consumption of these drinks to in between meals - or avoid these drinks altogether. (which is never goingt to happen in my case despite how anemic I become, I love coffe)

Vegan iron supplement

Honestly the only time I would advise someone to buy an iron supplement is if they have been tested for iron deficiency and thus requires a supplement. For most people whole plant foods will do just fine. In case you really want a supplement here is a decent one.

Thanks for sticking around til' the end and I hope you learned something useful! What is your favorite vegan source of iron?

  • Alex
  • November 2, 2017

Hey there! I’m Alex and I’m obsessed with a vegan diet, strength training and bodybuilding, as well as health and nutrition. When I’m not writing articles on here I am either in the gym, playing electric guitar or cooking vegan food!

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