- Iron is an essential mineral that helps with many important functions in the body.
- Vegetarians need to get their iron from non-haem (plant-based) iron sources, which is absorbed differently by the body.
- The best sources of iron for vegetarians include tofu, lentils and leafy greens.
- Iron is kind of a big deal. According to Dietitian Kate Agnew, iron is an essential mineral for the human body to function properly.
“Iron is important for our red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body,” she explains.
Iron is also involved in the process of storing oxygen in muscle cells as well as cell and immune system function. So, you see why it’s important to include enough of it in your diet.
If you’re following a plant-based diet, you need to be mindful that you’re consuming enough iron-rich foods.
But most people would associate iron with meat. So, what about vegetarians? Or those who follow a mostly plant-based or flexitarian diet?
Kate answers your burning questions about iron for vegetarians to help you figure out what foods you could eat to get enough iron in your diet.
Do vegetarians get enough iron?
It’s estimated that approximately one-third of all women of reproductive age are deficient in iron.
So how much iron does a vegetarian need? Well, they need the same amount of iron as a non-vegetarian. Where things differ, explains Kate, is by age and gender.
“Iron is particularly important for women in their reproductive years due to menstruation,” she says, “Fun fact, women need twice as much iron as men in these years!”
It’s recommended that men aged 19 years and older have 8mg iron per day. For women aged 19-50, the recommendation is 18mg per day while for pregnant women it increases to 27mg.
Where things become more complicated for vegetarians is there are different sources of iron, which are absorbed by the body in different ways.
“There are two types of iron,” explains Kate, “Haem iron is the type you get from animal sources like meat. Non-haem iron is the type you get from plant foods like vegetables and wholegrains. Unfortunately, non-haem iron isn’t absorbed as well. If you’re following a plant-based diet, you need to be mindful that you’re consuming enough iron-rich foods.”
While there is no causal link to show that a vegetarian diet reduces inflammation, there may be other health benefits. This could be why more and more people are curious about how to go vegan.
But vegetarian eating isn’t just about watching how many servings of vegetables you eat per day or getting enough high protein vegetarian foods. As with any diet, you should take a holistic approach to ensure you’re getting the minerals and nutrients your body needs.
Vegetarians need to get their iron from non-haem (plant-based) iron sources.
Can low iron cause headaches?
First things first, Kate wants you to know that help is available if you’re experiencing signs of iron deficiency.
“If you have any iron deficiency symptoms like fatigue, tiredness, weakness or pale skin, it’s important to see your health professional to discuss this,” recommends Kate, “Your health professional could also help you to understand how much iron you should be consuming and if your iron intake is sufficient. You could see an Accredited Practising Dietitian to discuss your individual intake, needs and get personalised advice.”
Research suggests there may be a link between low iron and headaches for women, but it’s a topic that’s still being explored.
The best sources of iron for vegetarians include tofu, lentils and leafy greens.
Can low iron cause digestive problems?
Some other symptoms that may be associated with iron deficiency include:
- changes to your mouth, such as a swollen tongue or mouth ulcers
- shortness of breath or heart palpitations
Kate says if you’re experiencing digestive problems as well as iron deficiency symptoms then “It’s important to see your health professional about this for tailored health advice.”
Try to eat foods rich in vitamin C with your iron-rich foods as it supports non-haem iron absorption.
What are the best sources of iron for vegetarians?
The difference between plant-based and vegan is vegetarians who follow a mostly plant-based diet may still eat some animal products. Kate says that if you still eat animal products then eggs are an excellent source of iron.
For vegetarians who are looking for non-haem (i.e. plant-based) vegetarian iron sources, Kate suggests the following:
- tofu and other soy-bean products
- vegan meat alternatives
- legumes such as beans and lentils
- leafy green vegetables in season, such as spinach
- nuts like cashews and almonds
- wholegrain breakfast cereals and bread (check the nutrition label if you’re unsure of the iron content)
If you’re eating these vegetarian foods high in iron, Kate also has this advice:
“Vitamin C supports non-haem iron absorption so it’s a good idea to eat foods rich in vitamin C with your iron-rich foods,” she explains, “You could squeeze some lemon juice on your leafy greens or pair vegetables like broccoli or capsicum with your meal.”
Kate also recommends avoiding coffee and tea with meals as they may reduce iron absorption. “It’s best to have your cuppa about 30 minutes before meals,” she says.
Wondering what the best milk alternative is for plant-based iron seekers? You could try coconut milk, but always check the calcium content on the nutrition information panel.
Nuts like cashews and almonds are sources of non-haem iron.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype. You hear a rumour about David Attenborough being a vegan and you wonder if you should be following suit.
Do your research. Follow the facts. Understand the benefits and implications for your situation. And speak to your health professional if you need any advice.
Kate Agnew is an Accredited Practising Dietitian who is passionate about innovation and problem-solving in health & nutrition. Her goal is to ultimately create a healthier environment for all Australians.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board November 2021.