Boost Your Iron Intake

Boost Your Iron Intake


by Fehmida Zakeer

The American Dietetic Association and the British Medical Association have stated that vegans are not at any greater risk to suffer from iron deficiency anemia than non-vegetarians. The China Study agrees- it found that the Chinese, with their predominantly vegan diets, got 34 milligrams of iron on average compared to the 17 milligrams averaged by Americans. 

Iron deficiency is, however, a major public health problem throughout the world, and women are most at risk. Deficiency this vital nutrient brings down immunity levels and also reduces the physical and mental capacities of people. Iron is needed by the body to perform a variety of functions. It’s most important role is to carry oxygen to all the cells in the body. Iron’s ability to take in oxygen makes it a critical part of hemoglobin, the pigment responsible for taking oxygen to all the parts of the body. Iron containing enzymes also helps in converting beta-carotene into the active form of vitamin A needed to maintain healthy eyes. A recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Arkansas show that post menopausal women who consumed 18 milligrams of iron per day had the greatest bone mineral density levels, proving iron is also an integral part of bone health. The important role played by this mineral cannot be underestimated and every effort must be taken to ensure that the required levels are maintained. 

Plant-based iron has always been considered to be an inferior source of iron, which means vegans must pay a bit more attention to their diets to ensure proper intake. While heme iron (iron from animal sources) gets absorbed into the body at the rate of 25%-35% of the intake, non-heme is absorbed only at the rate of 2%-10%. The main reason for the low absorption rate is the presence of substances that bind with it and carry it outside the body. Fiber in fruits and vegetables, phytates in grains and oxalic acid in spinach are the main culprits thought to be the reason for low iron intake by the body, although studies disagree as to just how large a role these binding agents play. 

Jenny Dean MS RD, nutrition specialist with Marr Barr Communications and member of the Board of Directors of the Colorado Dietetics Association, recommends soaking and sprouting of beans, grains and seeds to enhance absorption of iron from these sources. “Food preparation techniques such as soaking and sprouting can hydrolyze phytate and may improve iron absorption. Leavening bread also helps hydrolyze phytate. Other fermentation processes, like miso and tempeh, make iron more available.” 

Iron from plant sources is best absorbed by the body when it is taken with vitamin C rich foods or drinks. Dean says, “Ascorbic acid, vitamin C and other organic acids in fruits and vegetables enhance iron absorption even in the presence of phytates.” Even in the Chinese diet the main reason for higher absorption of iron could be the presence of vitamin C-rich green vegetables. The vegetables high in vitamin C include red and green bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, mustard greens and kale. Citrus fruits and berries, papaya, cantaloupe and grapefruit are also good sources of Vitamin C. It is important for vegans to include a source of vitamin C with every meal. 

Just as iron absorption is enhanced by the presence of vitamin C, it is also sensitive to the presence of inhibitors that prevent it from being absorbed by the body. Tannin, found in tea and cola drinks, is a major inhibitor. Research has firmly established the large role played by tannins in preventing the assimilation of iron- the tannic acid in tea reduces iron absorption by as much as 50%. Although lemon added to tea might help in reducing the inhibiting properties of tannic acid, it is best to avoid tea and cola drinks when taking iron rich foods. 

Danielle M. Schupp RD, sports nutritionist and nutritional consultant with a high-end clientele of dancers, athletes and professionals, advises drinking tea or coffee between meals rather than with a meal. Polyphenols, found in coffee, also interfere in the absorption of iron, even though its effect is not as great as tea. Calcium is another substance that inhibits the absorption of iron. Schupp explains why. “Calcium and iron compete for absorption; therefore, do not eat calcium rich foods with iron rich foods. Vegans should take their multivitamin at a separate time of the day than their calcium supplement.” 

Another classic method to increase iron from non-heme sources is to cook food in iron pots and skillets. Additional iron is leeched to the food from iron cookware. Schupp states that cooking acidic foods in cast iron pots can increase iron content up to 30 times. 

The recommended daily allowance for iron is: 

  • Children, 1-3 Years: 7 mg
  • Children, 4-8 Years: 10 mg
  • Boys, 9-13 Years: 8 mg
  • Boys, 14-18 Years: 11 mg
  • Girls, 9-13 Years: 8 mg
  • Girls, 14-18 Years: 15 mg
  • Men, all ages: 8 mg
  • Women, 18-50 years: 18 mg
  • Women, 50 years: 8 mg
  • Pregnant women, all ages: 27 mg
  • Lactating women, 14-18 years: 25mg
  • Lactating women, 19 years and older: 28 mg

Since iron from non-heme sources does not get absorbed as readily as that from heme sources, the recommended daily allowance for vegans is 1.8 times more than that of non vegetarians. 

Even though iron supplements are available for those who are not getting enough iron, they should be taken only on the advice of a medical practitioner. Overload of iron can result in iron toxicity that can lead to illness and death. The Tolerable Upper Limit for iron intake for adults is 45 milligrams/day. Dean also recommends avoiding supplements. “It will be very difficult for a vegan to reach this level with diet alone, but it could be possible with a high iron diet in addition to high dose iron supplementation.” Iron supplements in the form of chewable tablets should be kept out of reach of children due to the danger of kids mistaking the tablets for sweets. 

But iron deficiency can be combated easily with diet alone. Including iron rich foods and taking measures to increase iron absorption will help maintain the required level of iron in the body. Jenny Dean assures that, “It is possible for vegan adults and children to get the recommended iron amounts without supplementation, but it takes careful meal planning, including a variety of whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and soy.” 

According to Dean, “An example of an iron rich meal could be tempeh and vegetable stir fry with cashews, pineapple (for vitamin C), broccoli, bok choy or other iron rich veggies. Even a breakfast of cereal with soy milk, with strawberries or raspberries and a glass of orange juice would be an iron rich meal.” 

Fruits rich in iron include dried apricots, avocadoes, currants, raisins, dates, figs and prunes. One cup of dates has as much as 5.3 milligrams of iron- about 29% of the RDA for women. “But,” cautions Schupp, “a cup of dates is a lot of dates, and many people would experience bloating, gas and flatulence from that serving of dried fruit. It is advisable therefore to start with ¼ cup and gradually increase the serving depending on the level of gastrointestinal comfort”. The iron content in some common dried fruits, as well as their fresh counterpart, is given below: 

  • Prune juice, 8 oz: 3 mg
  • Prunes dried, 2 oz: 0.8 mg
  • Apricots fresh, 1 serving: 0.6 mg
  • Apricots dried, 5 halves: 0.8 mg
  • Currants, red, fresh, 1 serving: 1.12 mg
  • Raisins, seedless, cup: 2.1 mg

Vegetables that are good sources of iron are potatoes with their skin, bok choy, spinach, kale, watercress, broccoli, savoy cabbage, peas, turnip greens, mung bean sprouts, and tomato juice. Baked beans, adzuki beans, black beans, chick peas (garbanzo beans), kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans and pinto beans also provide iron to the body. Soya in its many forms, whole grains like whole grain bread or brown rice, black treacle, fortified breads, cereals and grains are other sources of non-heme iron. Even though whole grains and legumes are poor sources of iron, taking them with vitamin C rich foods will help in increased assimilation of iron from these sources. The iron content in some of these foods is given below: 

  • Spinach, boiled, ½ cup: 3.2 mg
  • Kidney beans, red, ½ cup: 2.6 mg
  • Navy beans, ½ cup: 2.1 mg
  • Lentils, ½ cup: 2.1 mg
  • Collards, ¾ cup: 0.6 mg
  • Broccoli, boiled, ½ cup: 0.66 mg
  • 1 large potato baked (with skin): 2.7 mg

Although most vegans probably do not have a problem with iron deficiency, it is important to be vigilant about getting enough of this vital nutrient. Women, especially when pregnant, lactating or trying to conceive, should be especially careful, as iron deficiency can have serious implications. By knowing which foods are naturally high in iron, as well as how to increase your body’s ability to absorb plant-based iron, one can easily avoid any iron-related problems without having to turn to supplements. 



  • 100 g (1 cup) enriched flour
  • 2.5 ml (½ teaspoon) salt
  • 300 ml (1¼ cups) soymilk
  • Oil for frying


  • 5ml (1 teaspoon) cinnamon
  • 2 red apples
  • 15 dates, chopped finely
  • 50 g (¼ cup) sugar
  • 15 ml (1 tablespoon) cornstarch
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • Apricot jam
  • Sugar for sprinkling

Preheat a small amount of oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl, add the cinnamon and mix well. Mix in the milk and beat until bubbly. Scoop a deep spoon full of batter and spread in a circular motion on a non-stick pan. Flip the pancake with a spatula to cook the other side once edges appear set and center is bubbly. Once cooked through, slide the pancake on to a plate and keep warm. Batter makes about 8-10 pancakes. 

To prepare the filling, quarter the apples, remove the cores and cut into chunks. Place the sugar in the pan with the cold water and stir over a low heat till it dissolves completely. Blend the cornstarch with orange juice and stir into the pan with the apricot jam. Bring to a boil, stirring continuously for 3 minutes. Add apples and dates. Put some of the filling into the middle of each pancake and roll up the pancake. Transfer to a heated serving dish and sprinkle with sugar. 


  • 175 g (1¼ cup) pasta shapes or macaroni
  • 175 g (1¼ cup) canned or fresh bean sprouts
  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 1 green bell pepper, sliced thin
  • 175 g (1¼ cup) canned pineapple chunks
  • Salt and pepper


  • 90 ml (6 tablespoons) oil
  • 90 ml (6 tablespoons) orange juice
  • 30 ml (2 tablespoons) pineapple juice
  • 15 ml (1 tablespoon) soy sauce
  • 1 pinch ground powdered ginger
  • 4 spring onions (scallions) for garnishing

Cook the pasta in boiling water until al dente. Meanwhile, combine the ingredients for the dressing. 

Drain the pasta and add the dressing. Chill. 

Add the bean sprouts, carrots, bell pepper and pineapple chunks to the pasta and toss lightly. Chop the scallions finely and sprinkle over the salad. 

Fehmida Zakeer is a freelance writer based in Chennai, India. Her articles have been published in regional newspapers and on various websites.


Author: VegFamily

VegFamily is a comprehensive resource for raising vegan children, including pregnancy, vegan recipes, expert advice, book reviews, product reviews, message board, and everyday vegan living.

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