Although iron deficiency is uncommon in vegans, one concern with a vegan diet is the lack of iron it supplies. Iron helps produce the proteins hemoglobin and myoglobin, which carry oxygen in the blood. Although the body stores iron, when levels of iron are low for long periods of time, the body starts to draw on those stores, taking away iron from production of red blood cells and leading to iron-deficiency anemia, which is characterized by symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness and headaches.
Iron comes in two forms: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron, which the body easily absorbs, can be found in red meat, poultry and fish. Non-heme iron, which the body absorbs less easily, can be found in animal tissues, fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. Because the body only absorbs about 1 to 8 percent of non-heme iron (as opposed to 22 percent for heme iron), it’s wise to be extra conscious of your iron intake if you eat a vegan diet. Adult males require about 8 mg of iron a day and adult females younger than 50 require about 18 mg a day (for women over 50, the daily requirement bumps down to 8 mg a day).
Although eating red meat might be the most efficient way of supplying the body with iron, that doesn’t mean you can’t easily get enough iron out of a vegan diet! The food listed below will help you on your way to an iron-rich vegan diet.
Spirulina: 5 mg for 1 teaspoon
Soybeans: 4.4 mg for ½ cup of cooked beans
Pumpkin Seeds: 4.2 mg for 1 ounce
Quinoa: 4 mg for 4 ounces
Blackstrap Molasses: 4 mg for 1 tablespoon
Tomato Paste: 3.9 mg for 4 ounces
White beans: 3.9 mg for ½ cup
Spinach: 3.2 mg for ½ cup cooked spinach
Dried Peaches: 3.1 mg for 6 halves
Prune juice: 3 mg for 8 ounces
Lentils: 3 mg for 4 ounces
Many iron-rich vegan foods also contain high amounts of vitamin C, which increases absorption of iron. Tannins, found in tea and coffee, and calcium can both inhibit the absorption of iron, however, so don’t eat calcium-rich foods for at least half an hour after eating iron-rich foods, and don’t consume your meals with tea or coffee.