Sources of Vegan Iron

Effect of iron on human health and
health benefits of iron.

When discussing essential nutrients and minerals in vegan food, iron is considered a critical one. Iron plays a vital role in normal cognitive and healthy brain function. Iron content also reduces tiredness and fatigue and supports the operation of the immune system. Iron deficiency is said to be one of the most common health problems globally, as iron is a mineral that our body cannot produce on its own but must be consumed regularly.


Iron helps to make haemoglobin, a protein that helps the body in the transportation of oxygen around our body via red blood cells and is an essential nutrient for non-vegans, vegetarians and vegans alike. Many people worry that cutting meat from their diets leaves them at risk of becoming iron deficient. But the truth is, there are plenty of plant-based iron-rich foods. Make sure you consume plenty of these vegan foods with natural sources of iron to ensure the body gets the most iron from your vegan diet.

Well, to a certain extent, people argue that the problem is that today many people are vegetarians and vegans, and they don't get enough iron from plant-based foods. Here, we will debunk the myth and discuss the most common vegan foods that help you get enough iron content daily.

There are also ways of preparing plant foods that can increase your body's ability to iron absorption. For instance, adding a vitamin C source to your meal can increase non-heme iron absorption up to six-fold, making the absorption of non-heme iron better than that of heme iron.

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Forms of Iron.

Heme and nonheme iron (haem iron and non-haem iron) are the two forms or sources of iron. The concern arises from the bioavailability (or absorbability) of iron from plant foods.


Is heme iron found in animal products and animal flesh?.

Yes, heme iron is found only in animal flesh, such as meat, poultry, and seafood. In animal products, 40% of the total iron content is heme iron and 60% non-heme iron. Most animals consume plant foods and leafy greens that contain non-hem iron. People falsely believe that they have to eat meat for their dietary iron intake, and vegans have lower iron stores or iron intakes than meat eaters. Even for non-vegetarians, most iron in the diet comes from plant foods rather than meat.

Is non-heme iron found in plant foods?


Yes, non-heme iron is all the iron found in plant foods like whole grains, lentils, lima beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy greens and blackstrap molasses, which is a by-product of sugar. Non-heme iron bioavailability is influenced by several dietary components that enhance or inhibit its absorption. Many plant foods contain other essential minerals and plant compounds. Adding vitamin C and other organic acids enhances absorption, the process regulated by the gut.

Iron deficiency anemia (anaemia) and what can inhibit absorption.

Even though this article is focused on anaemia generally, there are 3 levels of iron deficiency. In the increasing order of severity, they are depleted stores of iron, early functional iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia (anaemia). Even though anaemia (anemia) has several other causes, deficiency is the most common cause. Iron deficiency limits the oxygen delivery to cells.


As a result of most cultural and ancient prominence on the iron content of meat, it is an extensively held belief that a vegan diet is deficient in iron. But as stated earlier, many studies give enough evidence to prove this argument to be a false belief. These studies have surprised the world by showing that vegan populations have a higher iron intake by consuming a plant-based diet than other dietary patterns.

The best example of research is the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Oxford study in 2016, which compared the diets of over 18,000 meat-eaters, 4,500 fish-eaters, 6,600 vegetarians and 800 vegans. The researchers found that vegans had the highest intake of iron, followed by vegetarians, then fish-eaters and meat-eaters coming last.

The American Dietetic Association state that iron deficiency is no more common among vegetarians and vegans than among meat-eaters. Therefore it is clear that being a meat-eater does not guarantee protection against low iron intake.

However, if you don't get enough iron, the body cannot make enough haemoglobin, limiting our ability to deliver oxygen to our muscles. Signs of anaemia include pale skin, tiredness, feeling cold, low energy and headaches. Furthermore, severe iron deficiency can result in a weakened immune system, brittle nails, thinning hair, itchy skin, mouth ulcers, heart palpitations and inability to concentrate.

Some foods and drinks naturally contain phytochemicals that inhibit iron absorption, such as plant protein sources like soy products. Both tannins (a type of polyphenol) that are found in tea, coffee and red wine and calcium can reduce the absorption. Researches show that one must consume tea, coffee, and calcium supplements several hours before or after a meal that is high in iron. Large amounts of calcium in dairy products reduce iron absorption, making non-vegans iron deficient. Not consuming dairy (cow's milk containing calcium but no iron) is another reason why vegans have a better chance of maximising non-heme iron.

Anaemia (anemia) is shared among pregnant women, women of reproductive age and young children. It is because their iron intakes do not meet their body's high demand for iron, especially for those women and young adults, to make up for blood losses associated with the menstrual cycle. In the case of pregnancy, the mother must ensure an adequate supply of iron to the fetus and developing infant. In some instances, there might not be a need for a higher iron requirement considering that existing body iron stores will provide the required, given that menstruation has ceased during pregnancy and intestinal absorption has increased. Iron deficiency anaemia in women who are pregnant may result in infants' premature delivery and low birth weight.


The doctors may prescribe iron supplements to help you reach your body's requirements if the haemoglobin levels show that you are anaemic. Anyone who loses a lot of blood in heavy periods is at a higher risk of deficiency and may need to take prescribed supplements.

According to the WHO, in 2019, the global anaemia prevalence was over half a billion women of reproductive age, while among children aged 6-59 months, it is 269 million. The statistics also show that anaemia in children under five was highest in the region of Africa.

Iron deficiency is not necessarily caused by inadequate dietary intake but may also result from various medical conditions and other factors. Frequent blood donors and cancer patients also have an increased risk of deficiency. Dialysis treatment in people with kidney diseases (chronic renal failure) and people with heart failure can lead to loss of iron. Those with gastrointestinal inflammation or disorders or gastrointestinal surgery may also impair absorption. Excessive intake of zinc and aspirin use could also harm the absorption.

Plant-Based on a Budget

It's essential if you could have iron-rich meals to help boost the haemoglobin levels in your blood than getting them from iron supplements. Vitamin C dramatically helps the human body absorb iron. Not only citrus fruits but many plant-based foods contain reasonable amounts of Vitamin C, which helps to increase iron absorption. The more we understand the process of iron absorption and healthy eating, the more we can make the body absorb iron from our plant-based diet. Some juices, such as orange juice, are a good source of vitamin C that increase absorption, and you can have it instead of tea and coffee.

Phytate or Phytic acid that is found in unrefined (whole) grains, seeds, pulses and legumes, which are also a source of iron, can bind to iron, magnesium and zinc and reduce or inhibit absorption. Sprouting (germination) can increase absorption by 20-62%, and soaking pulses and discarding the water can also help. Expanding the time bread is fermented can also promote iron absorption.

Sources of iron for an infant as their first foods


An infant's iron stores start to run out around six months of age, so it is crucial to offer first foods that are rich in non-heme iron, including beans, tofu, chickpeas and lentils. To boost iron absorption, combine them with rich sources of vitamin C, such as broccoli, cabbage, kiwi fruit, strawberries and mango.

Research has found that Phytic acid is a potent inhibitor of iron absorption and low absorption of iron from cereal and legume-based foods. This is a significant factor in the aetiology of iron deficiency in infants. Moreover, being iron deficient during early childhood can result in poorer attention span and mental function and has also been linked to lower IQ levels.

Here are some tasty tips on how to create meals to absorb the iron better

  • Fortified Weetabix and almond milk with nuts and strawberries.

  • Add capsicums to the firm tofu stir-fry.

  • Add pineapple to a lentil curry, or add a little lime juice after the lentil curry is cooked. one cooked cup of lentils 6.6 milligrams of iron.


Iron status and intake


Iron requirements differ by age and gender.

  • 9mg iron per day for children between 1-3 years

  • 10mg iron per day for children between 4-8 years

  • 8mg iron per day for children 9-13 years

  • 11mg iron per day for boys between 14-18 years

  • 15mg iron per day for girls between 14-18 years

  • 8.7mg iron per day for all men over 18 year

  • 14.8mg iron per day for all women aged 19 to 50

  • 8.7mg iron per day for women over 50

  • 27mg iron per day for pregnant women

Lentil curry

Sources of iron on a vegan diet

There is a variety of great non-heme vegan sources of iron. Here are some of the best healthy iron-rich vegan foods to include in your diet: (USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Legacy, 2018 on iron).

Food groups Amount Iron (mg)

Blackstrap molasses 2 Tbs 7.2 milligrams of iron per portion

Cooked lentils one cup 6.6 milligrams of iron per portion

Firm tofu half cup 6.6 milligrams of iron per portion

Cooked red kidney beans one cup 5.2 milligrams of iron per portion

Cooked amaranth grain one cup 5.2 milligrams of iron per serve

Cooked chickpeas one cup 4.7 milligrams of iron per portion

Cooked lima beans one cup 4.5 milligrams of iron per portion

Cooked black-eyed peas one cup 4.3 milligrams of iron per portion

Iron-fortified bread 2 slices 4.2 milligrams of iron per serve

Cooked Swiss chard one cup 4.0 milligrams of iron per portion

Cooked quinoa one cup 2.8 milligrams of iron per serve

hemp seeds 3 Tbs 2.38 milligrams of iron

sunflower seeds 1/4 cup 1.2 milligrams of iron

pumpkin seeds one ounce(28-gram) 2.5 milligrams of iron

Vegans should try to find vegan-friendly fortified breakfast cereal that contains 100% of the daily value of iron per serving. Most breakfast cereals are vegan-friendly. However, there may be some non-vegan ingredients to look out for in breakfast cereal, such as cow's milk, honey and vitamin D3. Another delicious source of iron is dark chocolate. A three-ounce serving of dark chocolate provides 7 milligrams of iron. But all dark chocolates are not vegan-friendly as they can contain dairy. Cocoa powder is also high in iron.

There is a misconception that spinach is exceptionally high in iron because 100 grams of raw spinach contains just 3.5 milligrams of iron, the German chemist Erich von Wolf's transcripts mistakenly mention 35 milligrams. One cup of cooked spinach, however, provides 6.43 milligrams of iron.

Some herbs and spices contain a decent amount of iron, and even if they tend to be used frugally, frequent use will contribute to the overall intake of iron. For instance, three teaspoons of mixed herbs contain about 2 milligrams of iron.

Cooking in iron utensils or cookware is also practised to increase the iron content of the food being cooked as iron gets released in the food. Few studies confirmed that iron content has improved. However, it could be safe as long as the precautions are taken.

Risks from excessive iron


Overdoses of iron can be fatal. They can lead to multisystem organ failure, coma, convulsions, and even death, especially when taken by children, so don't forget to keep iron supplements out of the reach of children.

Iron toxicity from vegan food sources is very rare. But iron is generally a two-edged sword where the body suffers if there is insufficient or too much iron. However, 25 milligrams of iron or more supplements can reduce zinc absorption and plasma concentrations. High doses of iron supplements can also cause gastrointestinal effects, including gastric upset, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Taking an iron supplement with food can help minimise these adverse effects.

In conclusion,

Iron is an essential nutrient, and we e can get all the iron we need from a well-planned healthy vegan diet. Iron deficiency is an extensive subject. The more educated you are, the best choices you can make in your vegan diet. You can prevent and treat an iron deficiency by mixing foods rich in iron and foods rich in vitamin C in your meal, which aids the absorption of iron. If you are unsure how to plan a balanced meal, you should seek advice from a plant-based registered dietitian.

Supplementation might be unnecessary and can be harmful. If you have concerns or conditions that may put you at risk of deficiency, get your iron levels checked by medical or wellness professionals who can advise on the best course of action for you.

  • So avoid having coffee, tea (even decaffeinated), wine, beer and soda with your meals that hinder your body from absorbing iron.

  • Take your calcium supplements at least 2 hours before or after meals

  • Germinate or ferment your grains

  • Eat plenty of iron-rich plant foods daily and include a good source of vitamin C in your meals.

As a vegan, you are already adventurous, so be creative with your meals.


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