The Key to Getting Plenty of Iron in Your Vegan Diet

Most seasoned vegans know all about the importance of supplementing their diets with B12, but we may overlook the deficiency that the World Health Organization considers “the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.” The key to keeping our iron levels above the red is being mindful of how our bodies absorb the nutrient, especially since plant-based iron can be trickier for our bodies to process.

Iron deficiency leads to our tissues being oxygen deprived, since its major function is in transporting oxygen through our bloodstream. If we aren’t getting enough of this vital nutrient in our diets we could start feeling fatigued and more out of breath during physical exertion. If we reach the stage of iron anemia our skin can become paler, nails more brittle, hair thinner, immunity weaker and bodies generally less energetic. Fortunately, blood tests are a quick way to assess our levels and iron abounds in both plant and animal-based foods.

If you’ve been told by your doctor that your iron levels could improve or are otherwise wanting to be mindful of getting enough in your diet, there are a few important facts to remember about iron absorption in vegans and vegetarians, according to Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD:

  1. Non-heme iron (plant-based) iron isn’t absorbed by the body as well as heme (animal-based) iron, but overloading your system with a bunch of supplements and then forgetting about your intake for the rest of the day is not the way to go! Small amounts of iron throughout the day is the best way to ensure consistent absorption. Too much and the body simply will not absorb all of it at once.
  2. Eating iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods helps the body absorb it better. In fact, up to five times the amount of iron can be absorbed when assisted by its buddy, vitamin C. Luckily, there are lots of plant-based foods with plenty of both nutrients, and combining your foods appropriately can help with absorption, too. (Check below for some recipe ideas!)
  3. Avoid drinking coffee at the same time you’re eating your iron-packed meals, as it can interfere with absorption. The tannins in both tea and coffee (even decaf) can make all your preparation moot.

There are tons of plant-based foods packed with iron and many more with high vitamin C contents. Taking a supplement is also an option, but to maximize your iron levels it’s best to also work more diverse foods into your diet.

You can get pretty creative in combining these foods in different meals, so pop on your chef hat and waste no time in experimenting with a variety of ingredients. To get started, here are some suggestions for meals that contain oodles of both nutrients:

  1. Stuffed Peppers with Lentils
  2. Smoothie with Kale and Tropical Papaya or Pineapple
  3. Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Quinoa and Cranberries
  4. Pea Pesto Pasta with Sundried Tomatoes
  5. Black Bean Burritos with Heirloom Tomato Salsa
  6. Chili-Glazed Tofu Tacos with Cabbage Slaw
  7. Cashew Garlic-Alfredo Pasta with Broccoli
  8. Pumpkin Seed Pate and Raw Veggies
  9. Tofu Stir Fry with Broccoli and Peppers

Related:
12 Top Vegan Iron SourcesMake Your Own Delicious Dairy-Free Soft Cheese
10 Chia Recipe Ideas

Photo credit: Thinkstock

179 comments

Elisa F
Elisa Fabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing :)

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Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Maintain a balance in our nutrient-intake

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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federico bortoletto

Grazie.

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Anne P.
Anne P2 years ago

It's easy to get sufficient iron in a well-balanced, vegan diet. Iron supplements are not necessary if you're eating plenty of iron-rich plant foods (beans, legumes, leafy green veggies). Supplementing with Vitamin C-rich foods (such as tomatoes) enhances iron absorption. Read more at the Vegetarian Resource Group: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php

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Carol S.
Carol AWAY S2 years ago

An supplement should be taken in small amounts throughout the day for the best absorption.

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Philip Watling
Philip W2 years ago

Sprinkle iron filings on porridge?

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Simone H.
Simone H2 years ago

Oh, and now I don't really pay much attention to how much iron I get and my blood iron levels are absolutely fine. I hardly ever eat lentils and beans either...

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Simone H.
Simone H2 years ago

I have been donating blood for a while now. But what surprised me was that my iron levels are actually higher now that I am a vegan. I frequently got rejected from donating when I was a meat eater since my levels were too low, even though I took supplements!!!

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