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One of the most common questions I get as a vegetarian is, “how do you get your iron?”
While it's really not that complicated to get adequate iron intake on a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are definitely some important considerations. So, what is iron, why do we need it, how much do we need, and what are the best food sources for vegetarians? Let’s break it down.
What is iron?
Iron is a mineral that is naturally present in many foods, added to others (via fortification), and also available as a dietary supplement. It is a part of each and every one of our cells, and plays an important role in many of our bodily functions.
Iron is an essential component of the protein hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from our lungs to tissues all around our bodies. It is also a component of another protein called myoglobin, which helps our muscles both store and use oxygen.
Lastly, iron is an important part of many enzymes, and is necessary for growth, development, cellular function, and the synthesis of some hormones and connective tissue. It's pretty important stuff!
How much iron do you need?
This really depends on who you are. Adult men and menopausal women require only 8mg / day. Women of childbearing age need 18mg / day and during pregnancy that gets bumped up to 27mg / day.
(Interestingly, during pregnancy my midwife recommended that I bump up to 100mg of iron per day in the second and third trimester. I took that amount every other day instead, and it worked out just fine.)
Not getting enough iron in your diet can result in iron deficiency, which ranges from depleted iron stores to iron deficiency anemia, the most severe form of iron deficiency, affecting the operation of several organ systems.
According to the Center for Disease Control, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the US.
What does iron deficiency look like?
Signs of iron deficiency anemia can include feeling tired and weak, decreased cognitive performance, difficulty maintaining body temperature, decreased immune function and susceptibility to infection.
Someone with early stages of iron deficiency may have no symptoms, so it is important for at-risk groups (such as adolescent girls, pregnant women, and young children) to be screened.
If you’re concerned that you might be iron deficient, speak to your doctor, who can arrange for blood tests.
How do vegetarians get iron?
Dietary iron has two main forms: heme and nonheme. Animal foods such as meat, poultry, and fish contain both heme and nonheme iron, whereas plants contain nonheme iron only.
Unfortunately for us vegetarians, nonheme iron is not absorbed as readily by the body as heme iron is. And, to add insult to injury, many plant foods contain compounds, such as phyates and polyphenols, that actually impede iron absorption.
Because of this, the recommended daily intake of iron can be up to 1.8 times higher for vegetarians than for people who eat meat.
For most people who eat a balanced diet, these issues of increasing or decreasing absorption are a non-issue. Vegetarians need to pay a bit more attention since we don’t consume easily absorbed heme iron, and many of the foods we eat contain compounds that impede the absorption of nonheme iron.
Good vegetarian sources of iron
Good sources of plant-based (heme) iron include:
- dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and bok choy
- tempeh and tofu
- blackstrap molasses
- pumpkin seeds
- potatoes (with the peel on)
- wheat germ
- dark chocolate
- dried fruits
Ways to improve absorption of iron
Since non-heme iron isn't absorbed as well as heme iron is, it's important to be mindful of factors that can improve or impede absorption of iron.
1. Cook with cast iron
Did you know that cooking in cast iron pans actually increases the iron content of your food? In particular if you cook acidic foods such as tomatoes in cast iron, they will help to leach small amounts of iron from the pan.
You can also invest in a Lucky Iron Fish, which you add to the pot when cooking food, along with a few drops of lemon or acidic ingredients like tomatoes. One fish lasts for five years and can provide adequate dietary iron for an entire family. This product has been well studied, and donates the equivalent cost of each fish to their impact fund.
2. Steam your greens
Lightly steaming your greens such as spinach, bok choy, and broccoli will reduce the amount of oxalic acid and make the iron more readily available. For this reason I almost always use frozen greens – which have been blanched prior to freezing – in my green smoothies.
Steaming also really wilts down your greens - in a good way. Consider that a cup of raw spinach contains 1mg of iron whereas a cup of cooked spinach (which is a lot more spinach) contains up to 6mg of iron!
3. Pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C
Cooking your greens or beans together with foods rich in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, citrus, or red peppers, will do wonders for the amount iron you’re body is able to absorb.
Also good news for vegetarians is the fact that many of those iron-rich foods, such as broccoli and bok choy, are also rich in vitamin C. Otherwise, pairing foods at the same meal such as a spinach salad with slices of orange helps with the absorption of nonheme iron.
4. Soak your grains
Soaking grains (such as brown rice, wheat berries, and farro) before you cook them will not only make them easier to digest, but it will also reduce the phytic acid (phytate) content, and therefore enhance the absorption of iron. Make sure you drain the soaking water and give them a good rinse before cooking.
5. Avoid calcium and iron-rich foods at the same time
Since calcium competes with iron for absorption, it’s a good idea to eat iron rich foods and calcium rich foods such as dairy products at different times.
This is also something to consider if you like making green smoothies – I tend to avoid putting dairy in a green smoothie since the calcium can interfere with iron absorption, and some of the compounds in the greens can impair calcium absorption, so it’s a lose-lose situation.
6. Avoid drinking tea with your meals
I love my morning cup(s) of tea, but I always make sure to drink it at least an hour before I’m planning to eat. Conversely, if you like to enjoy a cup of after dinner tea, either go for a herbal option, or try to wait an hour after eating before you drink a tannin-rich black tea.
What about supplements?
There are lots of good iron supplements available on the market today. You may or may not need one. I’ve been vegetarian for over 25 years and have never needed a supplement, other than during pregnancy.
But, there are many factors aside from diet that could contribute to needing an iron supplement, such as illness, heavy menstruations, some stomach and intestinal conditions, and pregnancy. The only way to find out for sure if you need a supplement is to see your doctor and get a blood test.
It’s also important to note that iron deficiency is no more common in vegetarians than it is in the rest of the population. This is likely due to the balanced plant-based diet that many vegetarians consume which includes a mix of iron rich foods like legumes, seeds, and leafy greens, which also happen to be a good source of vitamin C.
So eat your beans, cook up a zesty tomato sauce in a cast-iron pan, and whizz up a vitamin C rich green smoothie. Iron for everyone!
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This post was originally posted September 23, 2014. It was edited, revised, and last updated November 1, 2019.