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Dietary iron can be found in two forms, heme iron which is found in meat, poultry and fish and which is easily absorbed, and non-heme iron which is found in cereals, fruits and vegetables which is not as easily absorbed. It is therefore assumed that red meat and fish constitute a better source of dietary iron, since more of that iron will be absorbed. Conversely, a vegetarian diet is faced with the challenge of filling all of its iron requirements from a less potent source of iron.
vegans and iron
Most vegetarians and vegans know that even though their diet may contain certain quantities of iron, the non-heme iron is less absorbed than the heme iron.
Legumes, beans, and dark green vegetables contain quantities of non-heme iron.
Legumes, beans, and dark green vegetables also have some substances that reduce dietary iron absorption, such as:
- Plant phytates (wheat and other cereals)
- Polyphenol compounds (sorghum, oats, spinach, tea, coffee)
- Phytic acid (bran, rice, soya beans, black beans, peas)
Combine these with the fact that a vegetarian or vegan diet is also higher in fiber which speeds up intestinal transit and vegetarians/vegans further reduce their iron absorption. Still, the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the diet can help with iron absorption. Iron is central to the production of hemoglobin, a main component of the body’s natural oxygen delivery system.
An iron deficiency leads to an amalgam of health issues, including:
- Chronic fatigue
- Muscle weakness
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
A vegetarian or vegan diet provides only the more difficult to absorb non-heme iron. While the iron in plant based foods is more difficult to metabolize for the human body, there are techniques which aid vegetarians in getting the most out of their dietary iron sources. Even with the implementation of absorption increasing techniques, vegans and vegetarians need to be especially aware of their dietary intake. Doctors recommend those with specialized diets or diet restrictions should nearly double their intake of non-heme iron rich foods over that of a person with an unrestricted omnivorous diet.
To View “Iron Content” PDF, please click here.
Vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower levels of stored iron, though they have iron stores and functional iron levels which equate to the levels of those with unrestricted diets. Sufficient iron levels in vegetarians and vegans may be attributed to the ingestion of foods which provide superior iron sources, even if the iron is less easily absorbed than heme iron.
Vegetarians and vegans can tailor their diet to maximize their iron absorption and in many cases this can prevent iron deficiency. This was demonstrated by studies showing that vegetarians and vegans with an adequate diet had the same prevalence of iron deficiency as their meat eating counterparts. Still, an increased awareness is necessary with a vegetarian diet and if you suspect that your iron intake is less than satisfactory or if you feel symptoms of iron deficiency, speak with your doctor about dietary adjustments and iron supplementation.
Oral iron supplements are an excellent source of iron. They also work with your body to correct low iron levels.
Instances of stomach upset, constipation, and nausea are dramatically reduced in those who choose to take a Polysaccharide-Iron Complex (PIC) such as
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc.Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.