Do Vegans Really Suffer From Iron Deficiency?

Well, considering the recommendations of the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for iron specifically given for vegetarians, the odds are that they are more susceptible to show iron deficiency in their blood than others. This argument is given for two reasons: First, their need for iron intake is 1.8 times higher than for people who include meat in their dietary habits. Second, the absorption of iron which is found in plant-based food is less effective than the absorption of iron in animal products. However, does this necessarily account for an iron deficiency with vegans? I don’t think so because at the end of the day it all comes down not to the amount of iron intake but to its effectiveness regarding its absorption abilities. If vegans choose high iron-absorbing plant-based food, the odds are pretty good that they will avoid any iron deficiency issues.

“True or False: The iron that our bodies require is the same element found in a cast-iron skillet.

This is a real true or false question on my college exam, and it fools a surprising number of my students. Iron is greatly misunderstood as a nutrient, especially when it comes to vegetarian and vegan diets.

The mineral is found all over the earth and is essential to red blood cells transporting oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our body, connecting us directly to the land we live on. Pretty amazing, right?

But iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in North America, with symptoms including fatigue, pale skin, weakness and inability to maintain body temperature. And as vegetarians and vegans, it’s worth paying special attention to make sure we’re getting enough.

So how much iron do we actually need?

Recently in the U.S., the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) gave new recommendations for iron, specifically for vegetarians, that are 1.8 times higher than the general population. As my colleague Jack Norris points out, this increase is not based on actual research on vegetarians, but simply because the iron in plant foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron in animal products (more on this in just a minute).

As a result, many experts in vegetarian nutrition believe that these recommendations are much higher than needed.

My take on it: if you eat a varied, healthy plant-based diet that includes a balance of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables — and follow the recommendations below — I don’t believe it is necessary to keep close track of iron intake.

Iron from plants vs. iron from animals

To better understand what we need to do to ensure our bodies are getting enough iron, we first have to accept two facts about iron — painful as they are for vegetarians and vegans to hear:

  1. 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.
  2. Vegetarians and vegans may have lower iron stores than omnivores.

But don’t fret your vegetarian brain over these issues. We’ll see that in fact it’s not all that difficult to get the iron you need on a plant-based diet.

As for #2, it’s important to note that while vegetarians have lower stores of iron than omnivores, they do not have higher rates of anemia. In the research, many vegetarians’ stores are “low-normal,” but this does not mean less than ideal! Actually, there’s some evidence that says low-normal iron stores are beneficial: improved insulin function and lower rates of heart disease and cancer.

How to get enough iron on a plant-based diet

You can start by making sure that you’re eating foods that contain substantial amounts of iron. Some of the best plant sources of iron include:

  • Legumes: lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans
  • Grains: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal
  • Nuts and seeds: pumpkin, squash, pine, pistacio, sunflower, cashews, unhulled sesame
  • Vegetables: tomato sauce, swiss chard, collard greens,
  • Other: blackstrap molasses, prune juice

But here’s the key: It’s not how much iron you consume, but how well you absorb it.”

To read the rest of the article, check it out on the original source over at No Meat Athlete.

Image Source: Centenarian Diet Research.

35 comments

  1. Amy Sofia Reply

    My doctor said I have abnormally low iron and told me to start taking vitamins (or eating a$#%&!@*ton of kale and mushrooms). But my grandmother also has blood problems so maybe it runs in the family.

    • Miko Reply

      It runs in my family too. I just take a supplement. I don’t understand why people think they need to eat meat just for iron when they could easily just take a supplement. But you know, people need their excuses.

  2. Jackie Cafaro Reply

    I’ve been a vegetarian for a decade (going vegan now), and I just had my blood tested the other day. My iron levels are perfect, which is funny because my non vegetarian mom is typically anemic. I get all the iron I need!

  3. Lori Hart Reply

    I did have a iron problem around my time of the month. For anout 4 months after going vegan. I was getting sores in my mouth and that’s how I knew. After I started taking a iron vitamin it went away– different for different people

  4. Lori Hart Reply

    It’s okay to admit that being vegan can give you a deficiency. In certain vitamins– it doesn’t discredit the lifestyle and I think a lot of vegans are afraid of admitting that. It’s not the vegan lifestyles fault for that happening tho- if the world and all the people were defendants of pure meat and dairy eaters we would not have systems that can’t compensate for such a healthy lifestyle- it’s actually sad that our bodies aren’t used to it. It’s okay to admit and it’s not the lifestyles fault–

  5. Karina Vásquez Reply

    I was severely anemic before j became vegan & I am now healthy & almost within the desired range every time. I used to be a 9.2, 9.7 max & am now always above 11

  6. Paige Noel Reply

    Just make sure you have some sort of Vitamin C with it, and your body will absorb it bettet. I’m anemic and simple squeeze of lime over my food always works.

  7. Amy Rowe Brown Reply

    I neglected to include that I’m kidney transplant, and anemia is a big issue for many kidney transplant patients. Plus…my kidney function skyrocketed!

  8. Jackie Cafaro Reply

    Nope! My iron levels are great while other people I know who eat meat do have iron deficiencies. I think it depends more on the person than on the diet, and many women are iron deficient.

  9. TJ Lucky Reply

    Just had everything tested. The only thing off the charts was my B12 it was way too high. So I quit taking it. Everything else is perfect.

  10. Ruth Spivey Reply

    Tonight we had a wonderfully iron packed dinner:
    Lentil loaf with sunflower seeds, mashed potatoes, peas and caramelized onions.
    For dessert was ‘sweet milk’. It’s blackstrap molasses in milk of choice…so yummy!! Our 4 year old loves that!!! He brags about it to his friends:)

  11. Tanisha Lane Reply

    I’m anemic and vitamin d3 deficient. I take supplements. But was deficient before being vegan. My levels really haven’t approved so I just take my vitamins.

  12. Herbivore Club Reply

    No. But like most herbivores I love the taste of salt. The lure of salt is due to the fact that fruits, seeds, nuts, vegetables, beans etc are low in salt and many herbivores will go out of their way to get some. Goats climb steep hills to like a rock, humans enslave fellow herbivores and murder them so they can taste their salty flesh and being totally unequipped to properly digest the flesh give themselves heart disease, strokes, cancers, obesity, diabetes, IBD, back pain and erectile dsyfunction.. But in answer to the article, where did the meat get its iron from?

  13. Parasteh Irani Reply

    I have been border line anemic for years. I loved donating blood before my iron levels dropped. I forgot taking my iron pills on a regular basis, so the issue was always there, and every time I went to donate blood I would be sent back home because of failing the iron test. I became a Vegan and not only do I not suffer from chronic digestive issues anymore, my cycles are so much less painful AND for the first time in years I finally gave blood with very impressive iron levels. So, no! For me, It actually helped improve my health

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