When you make a change to your diet such as going vegan, you might be worried about making sure you are getting all the essential vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. One mineral that people can be concerned about when going vegan is iron. Typically, when people think of iron they think of red meat or fish as the main and most important source of iron. Thankfully, that isn’t true and there are plenty of plant-based sources of iron!
What is iron and why do you need it?
Iron is an essential nutrient, as in you can’t make it, you have to obtain it from your diet. Iron is essential for the production of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. Iron also plays a role in you immune system and is important for the production of collagen. So that all said, iron is a pretty important nutrient that you need to stay healthy!
How much iron do you need per day?
The UK government recommends(1):
For women – 14.8mg a day
For men – 8.7mg a day
The amount is higher for women as they typically need more iron due to having periods.
Over 30% of the world’s population is deficient in iron and iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world(2)
People might assume that vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be iron deficient than their meat eating counterparts, but this isn’t true. Studies(3,4) have shown that generally people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets are not at higher risk of iron deficiency. Groups at highest risk of iron deficiency are usually women who menstruate, children, or people who follow very restrictive diets.
It might take a bit more planning and thought to make sure you get all the iron you need on a vegan diet but it can be done. There are vegetables high in iron, as well as other foods like beans and nuts. If you focus on eating a variety of foods and ensure you include high iron foods you will be well on your way to reaching your iron goals.
So what foods should you be eating? This isn’t an exhaustive list of plant-based foods that contain iron but they are some of the foods with a high iron content.
Vegan Sources of Iron
Per 100g – 2.7mg of iron
Spinach is a great addition to any diet, it is low calorie and can make a great base to salads, but you could also add a handful to pasta or stir in a curry to boost your meals nutrition.
Per 30g – 3.4mg of iron
Dark chocolate is a good source of iron, but also antioxidants. Make sure you buy dark chocolate with at least 60% cocoa solids to ensure you are actually getting iron from it.
Per 100g – 5.4 mg of iron
Not only is tofu an excellent source of iron, but it is also a great source of vegan protein. Tofu is a really versatile food that can be blended into smoothies, made into chocolate pudding, or used in savoury meals like stir fry and curry.
Per 200g (cooked) – 6.6mg of iron
Per 210g (half a can) – 3.3mg of iron
Baked beans are a British cupboard staple and for good reason. They are super tasty, make a quick and easy snack, and are nutritious.
Per 160g – 4.5mg of iron
Tempeh, similarly too tofu, is made using soy beans which is what makes it so high in iron. It is also rich in protein and makes a great addition to curries or you could even make tempeh bacon.
Per 30g – up to 4.4mg of iron
The iron levels in cereal will depend on what cereal you buy, but many UK cereals are fortified. For example, 2 weetabix gives you 4.5mg of iron. Cereal can be a healthy way to start your day, especially when paired with a serving of fruit and topped with seeds and nuts.
Per 180g (cooked) – 2.7mg of iron
Quinoa makes a delicious change from rice. It is quick to cook and is higher in not only protein than most other grains but also important micronutrients like magnesium and folate.
Per 28g – 2.8mg of iron
Pumpkin seeds may be tiny but they are nutrient powerhouses. They are perfect mixed into a salad or added to your breakfast.
What are symptoms of iron deficiency?
If you are experiencing any of the following it might be due to iron deficiency(5):
– Pale skin
– Cold hands and feet
– Shortness of breath
– Sores on your tongue
– Brittle fingernails
However, it is important to go visit you GP if these symptoms are persisting who can confirm it is iron deficiency with a blood test and check for other potential causes.
How to increase iron absorption?
The foods you eat effect how well the iron from your food is absorbed. If you want to boost iron absorption, including vitamin C rich foods in your diet can really help(6). Foods such as citrus fruit, leafy veg, broccoli, and strawberries to name a few. You could have a glass of OJ with your iron rich cereal, or make a veg heavy stir fry with tofu to help reach your iron goals.
What decreases iron absorption?
Tea and coffee are the major culprits when it comes to decreasing iron absorption(7). This doesn’t mean you can never drink them again, but try and avoid having them with meals or at the same time as taking an iron supplement. Other things that can inhibit iron absorption are calcium supplements, again, just make sure not to take them with meals.
- Saunders, A.V., Craig, W.J., Baines, S.K. and Posen, J.S., 2013. Iron and vegetarian diets. The Medical Journal of Australia, 199(4), pp.S11-S16.
- Slywitch, E., Savalli, C., Duarte, A.C.G. and Escrivão, M.A.M.S., 2021. Iron deficiency in vegetarian and omnivorous individuals: Analysis of 1340 individuals. Nutrients, 13(9), p.2964.
- Zijp, I.M., Korver, O. and Tijburg, L.B., 2000. Effect of tea and other dietary factors on iron absorption. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 40(5), pp.371-398.
- Ems, T., St Lucia, K. and Huecker, M.R., 2022. Biochemistry, iron absorption. In StatPearls [internet]. StatPearls Publishing.