Vegetarians are often concerned about getting the right amount of iron—with good reason. Iron is an essential mineral found in hemoglobin, which is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron, our bodies face the risk of iron deficiency anemia, which is associated with weakness, shortness of breath, fatigue and other symptoms – especially in women. (Check your personalized RDA of iron and other nutrients with the USDA’s handy interactive tool here.)
Although a study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found “no significant difference in the average daily iron intake of vegetarians versus omnivores,” vegetarians still need to pay attention to their iron. Here’s why: the two forms of iron the human body can absorb come from either heme sources – like in meat, poultry and fish – or non-heme sources – like in grains, fruits and vegetables.
But why does this matter? Well, because the non-heme sources are processed less easily by the body – so even though most vegetarians likely consume enough non-heme iron, the difference falls to how much we actually store of it. This is why the Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board recommends up to 1.8 times greater amounts of iron for vegetarians and vegans than for others. This means vegetarians need to consume more from non-heme iron sources in order to make up for what is lost by lack of processing, etc. So how can we do that?
First of all, let’s identify our iron sources. A handy table is provided here to follow, which suggests the following foods as great sources of vegetarian/vegan iron: grain sources like bran flakes, cream of wheat cereal, quinoa and oatmeal, fruit sources like prune juice, dried figs, raisins and dried apricots, and vegetable sources like cooked spinach, soybeans, lentils, tofu, cooked mushrooms, seeds and nuts. (Blackstrap molasses is also said to be high in iron.) In addition, foods rich in vitamin C can help the body enhance iron bio-availability. So, eating vitamin C-rich foods in combination with iron-rich foods increases the likelihood of the iron being absorbed. Some foods even include excellent amounts of both iron AND vitamin C, which is ideal – such as swiss chard, broccoli, bok choy and potatoes. Those foods should always become staples in the vegetarian/vegan diet for that reason.
Secondly, let’s talk about how we frequently deplete our bodies of useful iron. A substance called phytate, which can limit iron absorption, is often found in legumes, grains and other foods. The tannins found in coffee and tea, and the phytates in soy protein (yes – even soy, which is an optimal source of iron), certain cereals, certain spices, cocoa, fiber and calcium can all contribute to the obstruction of iron absorption – so these should be limited when eating high-iron foods whenever possible. Foods typically eaten together can help with this as well, such as tofu with broccoli and beans served in tomato sauce.
Overall, the vegetarian/vegan diet, when conducted with the proper awareness, still promotes far greater health in many ways, according to a 1999 study. To name a few, these include lower rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and even gallstones. And meat-eaters still must use caution with regard to their iron sources: While high in heme iron, meat sources are also high in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, calories, and (unless 100% organic) hormones, pesticides and antibiotics – leading to a higher risk of chronic disease and a substantially greater risk of colon cancer.