Iron, Vegetarians, Vegans, Deficiency, Anemia: Introduction and summary from authorative sources of plant based iron information, listed at the end of this article.
Contrary to what we've been told, a healthy, nutritious, well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet has plenty of iron.
People who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet should be no more likely than meat eaters to suffer from iron deficiency anemia.
I've known people of both dietary persuasions who were iron deficient, and not always because they didn't get enough iron in their diets.
Getting enough iron in your diet is important, but absorption and utilization of iron depends on several other factors.
There are two kinds of iron in foods. Heme iron is found in red meat. About 40% of the iron in meat is heme iron, 60% non-heme iron, the type found in plants.
Non-heme iron absorption varies quite a bit, depending on several other factors. Iron absorption is enhanced greatly by the presence of Vitamin C. It's inhibited by tannic acid, found in tea and the skins of nuts; calcium, found in plant based foods and dairy; oxylates which are abundant in green leafy veggies, especially spinach and chard; phytates, found in whole grains and legumes.
Heme iron from meat is more readily absorbed by the body, mainly because unlike plant based sources of iron, it doesn't depend on the presence of Vit. C for absorption. Fortunately, many vegetables and fruits are high in Vitamin C, so if vegetarians and vegans eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, getting Vit C along with iron isn't a problem.
For vegetarians or vegans, it's important to get plenty of non-heme iron from a variety of plant foods, because of the lower rate of absorption. That doesn't mean that we should be eating meat. It means that nutrition is holistic and synergistic, and that nutrients are better absorbed and used by our bodies in the presence of other nutrients.
Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains and legumes, plus soaking nuts and reducing other sources of tannic acid helps with iron absorption. Yeasted whole grain breads have less phytates than unleavened breads, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't eat flat breads or whole grains. It means we need to balance them with other foods.
It's best for vegetarians and vegans to get most of their iron from whole foods, rather than relying on supplements, or iron enriched foods, as those are forms of iron which tend not to be absorbed well, or may be constipating.
Whether we eat meat or not, a diet of mostly refined grains and flours, processed foods and junk foods, and low in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, puts us at risk for iron deficiency. Whole foods are valuable sources of iron for anybody. And not only iron, but many other essential vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Good digestion, as in having enough hydrochloric acid in the stomach, is also a factor in iron absorption. If you have a good appetite, it usually means that you have enough stomach acid to digest your food (which is why you should only eat when hungry).
Happily, plant based diets tend to promote healthy appetite and good digestion.
Teenage girls are vulnerable to iron deficiency, because of the poor diet typical of teens, combined with the onset of menstruation and heavy or frequent menstrual periods. Pregnant women are also vulnerable, and generally pre-menopausal women are more likely to be iron deficient than post-menopausal women.
Teen girls who go vegan are even more vulnerable, because they cut out meat from their diets, but they don't always replace the iron in meat with plant sources of iron, and they are more likely to be low in iron to begin with.
Elderly people are more likely to be iron deficient, because as a group, they tend not to eat well, or to eat enough. They may lose interest in food, or may not have easy access to food, or be less capable of cooking for themselves. They may not absorb nutrients as well. Iron deficiency may be just one of many age related nutritional problems.
But age related deficiencies are not inevitable. Nutritional studies have shown that older people who have eaten a healthy diet for a long time, and have stayed physically fit, are less likely to become incapable or uninterested in eating well, and less likely to suffer from nutritional deficiencies, including iron.
Savvy Vegetarian owes a debt of gratitude to David Ogilvie, Vegetarian Network, Australia, for his thorough research on iron in vegetarian diets.
David's article on iron & vegetarian diet explores in detail the functions of iron in the body and the intricacies of iron absorption. He also provides a long chart of iron rich foods showing serving sizes and iron content.
The conclusion to his article notes: "For people concerned about their iron levels, a simple blood test at a local medical centre will give an indication of their current iron status. For people concerned that their dietary intake of iron may not be adequate, we recommend that they see an Accredited Practising Dietitian who specialises in vegetarian nutrition." Savvy Vegetarian agrees with that advice.
Plant Based Nutrition Guides: Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan and Becoming Raw, by vegan dietitians Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis, have a wealth of well-researched and reliable information about iron in vegetarian or vegan diets - all of which supports the basic information presented in this article.
Vegan for Life by Jack Norris, RD and Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, also has many pages of well documented information about plant sourced iron.