MegaFood | May 2022

If you follow a vegan diet, you might wonder how likely you are to develop an iron deficiency. According to the NIH, vegans are especially at risk for low iron and while there are important health benefits to avoiding animal products, it is important to keep an eye on your iron intake. Of course, if you are vegan, then you probably already know that eating a plant-based diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease. In addition, plant-based foods contain compounds called phytochemicals that have been linked to certain anti-cancer properties. There is also an environmental benefit to plant-based eating that makes it an appealing choice for many. Luckily, all of these benefits don’t have to come at the expense of your iron levels.

How can vegans boost iron levels?

While a balanced vegan diet doesn’t necessarily make someone predisposed to iron deficiency, it is important for vegans (and even non-vegans) to ensure a balanced iron-rich diet and take iron supplements when necessary. Iron is a mineral that’s essential for proper growth and development. Bodies use it to make hemoglobin (the substance in red blood cells that allows blood to transport oxygen through the body). It comes in two forms in food: heme iron (animal-derived) and non-heme iron (plant-derived). Heme iron, found in animal protein like meat and seafood, is typically more bioavailable, meaning it’s easier for the body to absorb. It’s found in the blood protein of animals and hemoglobin, just as in humans. Non-heme iron, derived from plants, is found in foods like beans, nuts, vegetables and fortified cereals, and is harder for humans to absorb. Eating an iron-rich diet is one important way to get enough of this important nutrient.

Vegan diets should include foods such as legumes, nuts, spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, beets and string beans–all high in iron. Also, vegans should avoid foods that actively inhibit the absorption of iron, like coffee and tea, milk and some dairy products, foods containing phytates and phytic acid (like brown rice and whole grains) and foods that contain tannins, like grapes and corn. The irony is that some of these foods — like beans and soy — are also good sources of plant protein typically relied on by vegans.

How Much Iron Does the Body Need?

One of the most frequently asked questions about a vegan diet is “how much iron does my body need?” According to the National Institute of Health, it is recommended that women aged 19-50 should consume 18 mg iron per day, and 8 mg iron per day for those over 50. However, it is recommended that vegans and vegetarians consume 1.8x the amount recommended for meat-eaters. That means 32 mg iron per day for those aged 19-50, and 14 mg iron for those 50+. The reason for the higher intake is because it’s estimated that iron absorption in meat-eaters is 14-18%, while non-meat eaters’ absorption is only 8-12%. If you aren’t able to get the iron you need from your diet, iron supplements can help.

How Can Vegans Increase Iron Absorption?

The good news for vegans is that they typically consume high levels of a nutrient essential to the absorption of non-heme iron in their daily diet: vitamin C. The nutrient, also known as ascorbic acid, helps the body form blood vessels, muscle, cartilage, collagen in bones and plays a key role in helping the body heal. Since the body doesn’t produce vitamin C on its own, the only ways to get it is through supplements or through diet, in foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, berries, broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach and cabbage. Having adequate vitamin C intake as part of daily nutrition or supplement routine can help the body absorb iron.

It is also important that vegans taking calcium supplements do not exceed the recommended daily amount, as it has been linked to decreased iron absorption and causing non-heme and heme iron less well utilized by the body.

Following a vegan diet doesn’t mean iron deficiency is inevitable. MegaFood offers safe, reliable supplements, free of toxins and sourced appropriately. The key is to aim for a balanced diet and then add an iron supplement like MegaFood Blood BuilderⓇ if directed by a doctor.