How to Get Iron on a Vegan Diet

In general, a vegetarian lifestyle can lead to many health benefits. Part of this is due to the influx of micronutrients present in abundance in plants, while the other part is due to avoiding animal foods that contain many harmful components such as cholesterol, trans and saturated fats, IGF-1, Neu5gc and other foreign compounds. While it is still found in plants, nutrients such as iron are difficult to obtain in a vegetarian diet. Anemia is a common diagnosis that affects nearly 3 million Americans (not just vegetarians) and results from iron deficiency. Not all vegetarians are anemic, but knowing the basics to avoid it in the future does help. Here’s everything you need to know about a vegetarian diet and anemia.

What is anemia?

Anemia is the most common blood disorder according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Individuals with anemia do not have enough red blood cells (or damaged red blood cells) to carry enough oxygen in the bloodstream to the body’s tissues. Symptoms of anemia can range on a scale of severity. Mild symptoms such as tiredness or paleness appear while more severe symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, and brittle nails and hair.

What causes anemia?

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia, but it is not the only cause. Heavy menstrual cycles in women, cancer, vitamin B12 deficiency, and some inflammatory and chronic diseases such as IBS can also cause an individual to develop anemia. While you can’t control some of these rare triggers easily, you can take responsibility for your iron and B12 intake. Here’s more about how these two nutrients affect oxygen levels in the blood.


Iron is a major component of hemoglobin – a protein found in red blood cells that is extremely important in transporting oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Iron also supports the proper function of cells, regulates hormone production, and boosts metabolism. Without enough iron, the body cannot produce enough red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to the body’s tissues, which leads to fatigue. The recommended daily amount of iron (RDA) for most adults is 8 milligrams for men and 18 milligrams for women.

Heme vs non-heme iron

There are two types of iron – heme and non-heme. Heme iron is mostly found in animal sources, although it can now be found in some plant-based meats such as Impossible Burgers. Heme iron tends to be more absorbable than non-heme iron, which is found in both plant and animal foods. Of course, vegetarians tend to be deficient in heme iron, although they can still get adequate amounts while eating foods that contain non-heme iron. Researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health report that consuming five hundred milligrams of vitamin C in the same meal can significantly increase iron absorption.

Vitamin B12 deficiency

While a vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the less common deficiencies that can eventually lead to anemia, this nutrient is just as important as iron in the production of red blood cells and the transport of oxygen within the bloodstream. Vitamin B12 is the only supplement every vegan (and everyone) should take regularly, as this nutrient is extremely hard to find in plant foods. Nutritional yeast is the only common plant food that naturally contains vitamin B12, and while there are some fortified plant-based products on the market, plant-based supplements are a safe and effective way to ensure you don’t develop a deficiency. Most adults only need 2.4 mcg per day, but don’t be alarmed if the supplement contains up to 500 mcg – this amount does not constitute an overdose.


Top 5 foods to get iron in a vegetarian diet

1 Legumes and beans

Legumes are often promoted for their high protein content, but a lesser known fact is that they are also rich in iron. Legumes such as beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans (including tofu and tempeh) can help you reach your daily iron intake. Each cup of lentils and tofu contains about 6.6 grams of iron each. Kidney beans and lima are the top two sources of iron when it comes to beans — they contain 5.2 milligrams and 4.5 milligrams per cup, respectively.

2 quinoa

There’s a reason quinoa has long been called a superfood. This hearty, fluffy cereal contains four grams of iron per 1/2 cup dry serving. If you’re fighting anemia, try replacing the rice in your cereal bowls with this iron-rich plant-based food.

3 Blackstrap molasses

This thick, syrupy stuff is extremely high in iron, coming in at 7.2 milligrams per two tablespoons (that’s roughly one day’s worth of iron for men!). Although we don’t recommend eating molasses with a spoon as you would vegan Nutella, there are ways to incorporate this food into your daily diet. This stir-fry dip recipe is a great place to start.

4 Nuts and seeds

Yes, nut butter is important, too. Although you should eat a lot of nuts to fully meet your iron needs, they help you reach that goal. Eat pistachios, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds, which all contain between 1-2.7 milligrams of iron per 1-ounce serving.

5 leafy vegetables

Bob was right – leafy greens are real nutritional powerhouses. Swiss chard is particularly high in iron — about milligrams per cooked cup. Spinach also contains a large amount of iron, but it is not easily absorbed by the body. Other vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale are solid options.

take over zander Inquisitive housewife, and dedicated vegetarian, loves to experiment with food and share valuable tips on her social media. You can follow her on her journey into veganism where together you can help her transition towards a cruelty-free world, what she calls a cruelty-free revolution.

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