Iron is important in the making of your DNA, energy production and oxygen transport throughout the body. This is why having low iron stores can leave you feeling tired, irritable and pale-looking.
Iron is plentiful in plants, so if you’re eating a varied plant-based diet, you don’t necessarily need to be worried about getting enough.
Plant based iron is called non-heme iron, and it is not as easily absorbed by the body as the heme iron that we find in animal products.
If you’re someone like me, who was clinically iron deficient even while eating animal products, you may need to be a bit more vigilant with your plant-based iron sources or explore the option of supplementation with your health care provider and/or dietitian.
How much iron do we need?
Remember how we said that plant sources of iron (non-heme iron), are harder for our bodies to absorb than animal sources of iron (heme iron)?
Well, because of this, 100% plant based eaters need about 1.8x more iron than our non-vegetarian friends!
Don’t let this scare you though! As you’ll soon see, plant based foods are abundant in iron (phewf).
See the table below, in (brackets) are the adjusted recommended intakes for vegetarians/vegans.
It is important to note that these recommended intakes take into account iron from both food AND supplements.
WAIT, hold the phone! Why is the recommended daily intake for plant-based pregnant women HIGHER than the recommended daily amount of iron to stay below?
These recommendations are set out for the safety of the general public and may not best suit your needs!
For example, if you’ve already been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, you may be prescribed supplements that can contain 3x the amount of iron than the recommended daily “limit”, to help replete your stores. Supplementing with iron should always be done under the supervision and advice of your primary care provider or dietitian.
What are the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency anemia is the world’s most common nutrient deficiency and can arise for many reasons — poor intake and ability to absorb iron from food, as well as increased losses (i.e. bleeding or intense exercise). If you are iron deficient, you’re likely to feel tired, irritable, look pale and potentially become out of breath more easily.
A simple blood test measuring ferritin (the storage form of iron), can help with diagnosing iron deficiency anemia.
Are 100% plant based eaters more likely to be iron deficient?
Those who eat a 100% plant based diet do tend to have lower serum ferritin levels than non-vegetarians BUT this does not seem to be a problem or cause symptoms for most. Where you can get into trouble is with prolonged inadequate iron intake/absorption, where not only are you iron stores low (low ferritin), but your blood cells cannot carry oxygen around like they once could. This is when we would expect to see some symptoms of iron deficiency anemia.
What plant foods have iron?
- 3/4 cup cooked oatmeal, 4.5-6.6 mg
- 3/4 cup cream of wheat, 5.7-5.8 mg
- 3/4 cup cooked oat bran cereal, 2.0 mg
- 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 2.1 mg
- Most grain flours in Canada for fortified with iron
Legumes, nuts and seeds
- 3/4 cup cooked lentils, 4.1-4.9 mg
- 3.4 cup cooked beans, 2.6-4.9 mg
- white, kidney, navy, pinto, black, adzuki
- 1/2 cup edamame, 1.9-2.4 mg
- 3/4 cup tofu, 2.4-8.0 mg (check for fortification)
- 3/4 cup tempeh, 3.2 mg
- 1.4 cup pumpkin seeds, 1.4-4.7 mg
- 1.4 cup nuts, 1.3-2.2 mg
- cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, pistachio nuts
- 1 tbs roasted sesame seeds, 1.4 mg
- 1/4 cup hummus, 1.5 mg
- 2 tbsp almond butter, 1.1 mg
- 2 Tbsp peanut butter, 0.6 mg
- 1/2 cup soy milk, 0.5-0.9 mg
- 3/4 cup fortified soy yoghurt, 2.1 mg
Fruit & Vegetables
- 1/2 cup cooked spinach, 2.0-3.4 mg
- 1/2 cup tomatoe puree, 2.4 mg
- 6 spears asparagus, 2.1 mg
- 1/2 cup cooked kale, 1.3 mg
- 1/2 cup turnip or beet greens, 1.5-1.7 mg
- 1 medium potato (with skin), 1.3-1.9 mg
- 1/2 cup prune juice, 1.6 mg
- 1/4 cup dried apricot, 1.6 mg
- 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses, 3.6 mg
- 2 tbsp yeast extract (marmite or vegemite), 1.5 mg
How can you boost the absorption of plant-based iron?
(1) Vitamin C!
- Vitamin C can make plant-based iron (non-heme iron), more easily absorbed, whether it be in food or in supplement form. Add an orange to your spinach/kale smoothie, squeeze some lemon juice on top of your asparagus, swiss chard or kale, add berries to your oatmeal, make a vegetable and bean/lentil stirfry with red and yellow bell peppers!
- Some other vitamin C rich foods: broccoli, cabbage, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, brussels sprouts, grapefruit.