Iron in the vegan diet

Dark leafy greens in a bowl

Iron is a mineral found in plants and animals and all living things. It’s an important component of haemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body. Iron gives haemoglobin the strength to “carry” (bind to) oxygen in the blood, so oxygen gets to where it needs to go. Without enough iron, the body can’t make haemoglobin and makes fewer red blood cells. This means tissues and organs won’t get the oxygen they need.

If a person does not eat sufficient iron-rich foods, they may become iron deficient and suffer from a condition known as ‘iron deficiency anaemia’. Symptoms include extreme tiredness, pale complexion, breathlessness and heart palpitations. Adolescent girls are particularly at risk of developing iron deficiency as they begin to menstruate. Thus, achieving adequate iron stores becomes important, especially for teenage girls.

Types of dietary iron

There are 2 types of Iron namely, Heme Iron and Non-Heme Iron. These types are easy to identify in your daily diet. Heme iron comes from animals and non-heme iron comes from plants.

Heme iron Non-heme iron
What is the difference? Heme iron is the type of iron found in blood and muscle. Present in animal foods like red meats, fish, and poultry, heme iron is a significant source of the absorbed iron in a typical western diet, though it only makes up about one-third of dietary iron. Non-heme iron is iron found in plant foods like green leafy vegetables, beans, and nuts. Non-heme iron is not combined with a heme protein, and this difference is the reason for the body’s reduced ability to absorb non-heme iron. Slower absorption allows you to eat more iron-rich plants without worrying about iron toxicity.
Food sources? Heme iron only exists in animal products or animal-based iron supplements. These heme iron supplements are available as powders, tablets, capsules, and even drinks. Heme iron-rich foods include oysters, red meats like beef liver, and fish like sardine. Plant-based food is the best source of non-heme iron. You can boost your iron intake by eating more iron-rich foods like green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli), lentils, and pumpkin seeds.

Best vegetarian sources of iron

Plant-based sources of iron aren’t absorbed as easily as in diets that include meat. As such, vegetarians need almost twice as much dietary iron each day as omnivores because of the lower intestinal absorption of iron from plant foods. Eating the following foods packed with iron, together with sources of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, will improve your body’s absorption of iron.

1. Dark leafy greens: It is important to note that greens contain more iron when cooked than when eaten raw. Spinach is the king of all greens with a whopping 6.43 mg of iron per 1 cup (180 gms) when cooked. Collard greens, fenugreek, kale and turnip greens, all cooked, round out to 6 mg. If the taste of greens doesn’t thrill you, try blending them in a smoothie with soy milk, a banana, and frozen fruit. Your taste buds will thank you!

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Dhrishti Bijlani
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Dhrishti Bijlani

Armed with a Master’s in Clinical Nutrition & Dietetics, Dhrishti Bijlani's goal is to make it easier for everyone to eat right and get more habituated to a healthy lifestyle.