Iron in a vegan diet: the most important questions and answers

Eisen bei der veganen ErnÀhrung: Die wichtigsten Fragen und Antworten

The vegan diet is booming and more and more people are now eating plant-based, for ethical but also for health reasons. However, opinions are divided as to whether this form of nutrition is healthy. Iron deficiency or vitamin B12 are often mentioned, which one should be missing.

This article is intended to give you clarity in your vegan diet about iron, its function in your body and the difference between plant and animal iron. You will also receive advice on how to meet your iron requirements in a plant-based diet and what you should pay attention to.

the essentials in brief

  • Iron is a trace element that is essential for your body to survive. It is ingested through food and is the most common form in your body. How much iron you need depends on factors such as gender and age.
  • While animal iron is far more easily absorbed by the body, plant iron is more difficult to absorb. There are also foods that inhibit or promote iron absorption.
  • Alternatively, you can take supplements to meet your iron needs. You no longer have to pay attention to the iron content in your food. Here, however, you should consult a doctor to prevent incorrect dosing.

Hectic lifestyle?
No problem!


With our Sundt iron capsules + vitamin C you can:

  • keep your energy levels high on the most stressful days🏃
  • be sure you are getting enough iron🌿

Our vegan iron capsules are now available with a 21% discount *


Sunt Icon

*The discount is automatically applied to the product

Definition: what is iron?

Iron is a trace element that is essential for your body to survive. It is the most common trace element in your body and is ingested through food.

With iron, a distinction is made between heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is primarily found in meat and animal products, while non-heme iron is most commonly found in plant products.

Iron in the vegan diet: what you should know

It doesn't matter whether you're an omnivore or a vegan - you should always pay attention to the iron content in your diet. A lack of iron can be just as negative as an excess. Vegans in particular should focus more on iron, since heme iron is only found in meat and is therefore absent in a vegan diet.

What functions does iron perform in your body?

The trace element iron is important for many functions in your body. Therefore, a deficiency or excess affects many areas of your body.

Iron is primarily responsible for transporting oxygen in your blood, since oxygen is bound to the pigment hemoglobin in your red blood cells (erythrocytes) with the help of iron. This allows your cells and organs to be supplied with oxygen.

Among other things, iron is responsible for building new cells and blood.

Without enough iron, your body cannot make enough blood pigment. It is also essential for growth and therefore of great importance for children. In addition, iron ensures the energy supply in your cells and also forms hormones.

In addition, it keeps your immune system strong and ready to fight. Iron also keeps your hair, skin, and nails healthy. So you can also see from the outside whether your iron content is enough.

What is the daily iron requirement?

The daily iron requirement varies from person to person, but there are also differences between the sexes. Factors such as blood loss (blood donation, menstruation), but also pregnancy affect your iron requirements. We have set up a table for you to give you an overview.

Gender life stage iron requirement
Masculine 1 to 10 years 8-10 mg
Female 1 to 10 years 8-10 mg
Masculine 10 to 19 years 12 mg
Female 10 to 19 years 15 mg
Female pregnancy 30 mg
Female lactation 20 mg
Masculine 19 to 50 years 10 mg
Female 19 to 50 years 15 mg
Masculine 50+ years 10 mg
Female 50+ years 10 mg

Men have a lower iron requirement than women. This is because men cannot experience menstrual bleeding or pregnancy. But men should also keep an eye on their iron intake, especially after surgery or blood donation.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women in particular should pay attention to their iron intake to ensure their own health and that of their child. The need for iron can also fluctuate in phases such as menstruation or after an injury and should be monitored!

Is there an increased risk of iron deficiency with a vegan diet?

This question cannot be answered clearly. However, it tends to be a yes - with a plant-based diet there could be a greater risk of iron deficiency. Especially athletes with a vegan diet should control their iron intake. (4.8)

One of the reasons for this is the difference between heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is mainly found in meat and animal products and, due to its structure, is much more easily absorbable by humans - here 15 to 35% of the iron is absorbed by the body.

Note here that humans do not absorb all of the iron that they have ingested with food!

Non-heme iron, on the other hand, is mainly found in plant products. This is in a different form than heme iron and is much more difficult for the human body to absorb. Usually less than 5% is absorbed. In other words, it takes far more plant products than animal products to get the same iron intake.

This means that vegans need to have a more balanced diet to meet their daily iron needs. However, it does not mean that a plant-based diet automatically causes iron deficiency! (6)

Foods such as coffee make it difficult to absorb iron - regardless of whether it is heme iron or non-heme iron. Accordingly, all people must pay equal attention to their food.

What symptoms can indicate an iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency is dangerous, regardless of the diet. It is not always identifiable as such, as the symptoms are varied and mixed. Iron deficiency is divided into three different stages, the most severe of which is iron deficiency anemia, which is also described as anemia. Iron deficiency affects women more than men. (1)

Even if a slight iron deficiency often goes unnoticed, the risk of anemia should not be underestimated. The following symptoms can indicate an iron deficiency:

tiredness/fatigue

One of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency is chronic fatigue and tiredness. If you wake up tired in the morning, it is not pleasant for anyone. Also, rapid fatigue from physical activity is depressing and exhausting.

If this daily state becomes the norm, you should become vigilant. The exhaustion and fatigue are then due to the fact that there is not enough iron to bind oxygen in the blood cells and to supply the cells and organs with oxygen. Tiredness and exhaustion are the consequences.

paleness

Pale and sallow skin is another symptom of iron deficiency.

Since iron is important for the production of hemoglobin, the blood pigment, this is disturbed in the event of an iron deficiency. This then affects your complexion and makes you appear pale and sickly.

So you should also keep an eye open here if you look sicker by the day.

Hair loss, brittle nails

In this case, you can see the iron deficiency in the person. Here, too, the supply of all bodily functions is no longer guaranteed and therefore the cells of nails and hair cannot be supplied either. As a result, your hair can fall out.

Headache

Iron deficiency can also cause headaches.

These are particularly evident when the cell supply with iron is no longer guaranteed. This happens when the iron has to be used for blood formation and there is not enough stock for cell formation and supply.

Man on airplane with headache

Headaches interfere with everyday life and have many causes. However, if they often occur with other symptoms, you should have yourself checked for iron deficiency. (Image source: anyaberkut/ 123rf)

These symptoms then belong to a more serious stage of iron deficiency.

How can I tell if I have an iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency is a common condition, especially in women. But especially with a vegan diet, it can quickly happen that you get deficiency symptoms. In this case, the easiest solution is to make a doctor's appointment. A blood test can help determine if you have enough iron in your blood and body.

Alternatively, there is the possibility of questionnaires on the Internet, the results of which can indicate a deficiency. In addition, there are self-tests in pharmacies, which can diagnose iron deficiency with the help of a blood sample.

Please note, however, that none of these options can replace a reliable diagnosis from a doctor!

Even if tests and questionnaires can provide clues and answers, none of these options offer a reliable diagnosis. In addition, the doctor is able to take appropriate countermeasures for the iron deficiency. We therefore recommend that you consult a doctor if you suspect iron deficiency in order to rule out consequential damage. (10)

How do I prevent iron deficiency on a plant-based diet?

There is a much higher risk of iron deficiency with a plant-based diet because the iron from animal products is better absorbed than that from plant products. Nevertheless, this does not mean that you will automatically get an iron deficiency with a plant-based diet! Here are a few tips on how to prevent iron deficiency.

  • A balanced diet: In principle, an iron deficiency can occur in any diet if it is too one-sided. Many plant-based foods such as legumes have a very high iron content. Therefore, we recommend that you have a mixed and varied diet to prevent deficiency.
  • Avoiding foods that inhibit iron absorption: There are foods that make it difficult to absorb iron. Coffee or red wine are among these foods. It is advisable to avoid these foods during an iron-rich plant-based meal, or to eat them a little later.
  • Intake of foods that promote iron absorption: There are also foods that promote iron absorption. Vitamin C, for example, is one of them and supports your body in better absorbing the vegetable iron you have absorbed. But other acids, such as lactic acid, can also help.
  • Taking supplements: If you find that you are not getting enough iron, you can also take supplements. They come in tablets, but also capsules or juices. However, you should consult a doctor to find the right dosage.

How do I make it easier for my body to absorb iron on a vegan diet?

As already mentioned, many plant foods have a lot of iron, but the human body cannot absorb it ideally. But there are measures you can take to make it easier for your body to absorb it.

One method is to avoid inhibitory substances that are present in some foods. They greatly impede the absorption of iron and should therefore be avoided or taken at different times. The following foods are included:

  • Phytic Acid (Phytates): Soy, Rice
  • Oxalates: spinach, cocoa, rhubarb
  • Polyphenols (tannins): coffee, red wine, black tea

For many of us it is unthinkable to give up our coffee in the morning. But this does not have to be done, the coffee can simply be taken at a different time.

The situation is different with foods that contain a lot of vitamin C. The ascorbic acid it contains ensures that the iron can be better absorbed. Natural acids such as lactic or malic acid can also have a supporting effect. Here is an overview for you:

  • Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli
  • Lactic acid: sauerkraut
  • Malic acid: apples, quinces, gooseberries

How do I ensure iron needs are met in children's vegan diets?

Iron is not only essential for the transport of oxygen in the blood, but above all for growth in children. Iron is also essential for brain development. (2)

To begin with, babies are not vegan because they are breastfed.

However, after and during weaning, there is always the option of feeding fruit and oatmeal. Cooked vegetable pulp can also be fed. But you should pay close attention to iron intake, especially for babies and children. (5)

toddler eating

When your child has finished breastfeeding, you can feed it fruit or vegetable puree. This makes the transition to a vegan diet easier. But pay attention to the iron intake and talk to a doctor! (Image source: life is fantastic / Unsplash)

There is also the option of giving your child supplements. These often also contain other trace elements or vitamins that are difficult to get from a plant-based diet. But to find the right dosage, we recommend a visit to your pediatrician. He or she can then discuss the intake of supplements with you and find the right dosage.

Can too much iron in a vegan diet be harmful?

The answer is yes. However, too much iron can harm you in any diet. The margin between an iron deficiency and an iron surplus is very small here.

Iron that is not used immediately is stored in the protein ferritin. This is present in the bone marrow, but also in organs such as the spleen and liver. If you have an excess of iron, the iron puts a strain on your organs and can quickly become dangerous.

A slight iron deficiency often has no effect and goes unnoticed. If there is a surplus, however, the situation can very quickly become very dangerous. Symptoms of excess include:

  • Bloody vomiting diarrhea
  • lack of concentration
  • heart attacks
  • Headache
  • exhaustion

An excess of iron occurs when there is too much stored iron in your organs such as the spleen or liver and your bone marrow. This limits its functionality and can become dangerous. If the symptoms mentioned above accumulate, we recommend that you consult a doctor.

As a vegan, how can I meet my iron requirements?

Which vegan foods are high in iron?

The easiest way is probably to have a balanced diet. As already mentioned, many plant-based foods are very high in iron. Unfortunately, this is harder for the body to absorb.

Nevertheless, you can effectively counteract an iron deficiency by eating a balanced and rich diet and consuming plant products containing iron. The following table shows you an example of how much iron is in 100 grams of plant-based foods.

Vegetable food iron content
pumpkin seeds 12.5 mg
Dried Lentils 8mg
Raw Amaranth 7.6 mg
Raw Spinach 4.1 mg
Dried Peaches 6.5 mg

Hectic lifestyle?
No problem!


With our Sundt iron capsules + vitamin C you can:

  • keep your energy levels high on the most stressful days🏃
  • be sure you are getting enough iron🌿

Our vegan iron capsules are now available with a 21% discount *


Sunt Icon

*The discount is automatically applied to the product

When should I take supplements?

Despite a balanced diet, an iron deficiency can develop quickly, especially in a vegan diet. As soon as you experience symptoms of iron deficiency, you should have your iron levels tested and consult a doctor about taking supplements. (7.9)

Many iron supplements also contain other vitamins and trace elements that are difficult to get from a plant-based diet. Thus, they promote your health in a simple way with your vegan diet.

However, before you take supplements, we recommend that you consult a doctor. A blood test and a meeting are the best ways to determine if you need supplements and how high they should be. This way you avoid the risk of iron deficiency or an iron overdose. (8th)

Are there medications that I can use to meet the iron requirements in a vegan diet?

As an alternative to the preparations available without a prescription, there are also prescription iron supplements. (3) These are mainly prescribed when the iron deficiency turns into iron deficiency anemia (anemia).

The medication differs in how it is taken. Either this is done orally through capsules, tablets or juices. Or you can get iron intravenously. However, this method is usually used for more serious iron deficiency. In the following section we will go into more detail about the individual forms.

Orally

In the oral form, iron is administered either in capsules, tablets, or juice. This form of intake is one of the simplest and safest options, as the dosage leaves little room for error.

Advantages
  • Easy dosing
  • Less susceptibility to errors
  • Uncomplicated intake
Disadvantages
  • Any digestive problems
  • stomach pain
  • Iron intake may vary
  • The advantages are that the recording is simple and straightforward. However, there are cases where iron supplements are not well tolerated and can lead to digestive problems and abdominal pain. The absorption of iron is also influenced by foods that inhibit or promote it.

    IV

    With intravenous iron intake, the iron is supplied to the body by means of an infusion. Here the patient has to go to a facility to have the infusion set.

    Advantages
    • Side effects of oral preparations are excluded
    • Better absorption than oral preparations
    • Faster effectiveness
    Disadvantages
  • Dosing must be carefully controlled
  • May trigger allergic shock
  • Ingestion is very cumbersome
  • Intravenous administration offers quick results and is suitable for people who suffer greatly from the side effects of oral preparations or who cannot take preparations orally for reasons of illness.

    With this form of therapy, however, there is a risk of suffering a serious allergic shock. In addition, the dosage must be precisely controlled to prevent an oversupply of iron.

    Iron replacement therapy is usually used in more severe cases of iron deficiency. Usually, over-the-counter preparations are recommended. However, if the defect does not improve, one of the above-mentioned remedies is used.

    Conclusion

    Iron deficiency is possible with any diet. With a plant-based diet, however, it happens much more easily if you don't pay attention to your iron requirements. As a vegan, you should therefore pay attention to your iron intake or take supplements to rule out a deficiency.

    However, iron deficiency is not automatically present as soon as you eat a plant-based diet. A balanced diet and the intake of supporting foods such as orange juice with an iron-rich meal can have a supportive effect, because plant-based foods have enough iron. Alternatively, you can also take supplements and continue to eat healthy and plant-based.

    Itemization(10)

    1. Percy L, Mansour D, Fraser I. Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia in women. Best Practice Res Clin Obstet Gynaecol. 2017;40:55-67. doi:10.1016/j.bpobgyn.2016.09.007 Source
    2. Subramaniam G, Girish M. Iron deficiency anemia in children. Indian J Pediatr. 2015;82(6):558-564. doi:10.1007/s12098-014-1643-9 source
    3. Dahlerup J, Lindgren S, Moum B. JÀrnbrist och jÀrnbristanemi Àr globala hÀlsoproblem [Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia are global health problems]. Lakartidningen. 2015;112:DAAE. Published 2015 Mar 10. Source
    4. Rogerson D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:36. Published 2017 Sep 13. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9 Source
    5. Lemale J, Mas E, Jung C, Bellaiche M, Tounian P; French-speaking Pediatric Hepatology, Gastroenterology and Nutrition Group (GFHGNP). Vegan diet in children and adolescents. Recommendations from the French-speaking Pediatric Hepatology, Gastroenterology and Nutrition Group (GFHGNP). Arch Pediatr. 2019;26(7):442-450. doi:10.1016/j.arcped.2019.09.001 Source
    6. Schwarz J, Dschietzig T, Schwarz J, et al. The influence of a whole food vegan diet with nori algae and wild mushrooms on selected blood parameters. Clinical Lab. 2014;60(12):2039-2050. doi:10.7754/ clin.lab.2014.140527Source
    7. Jalambo M, Karim N, Naser I, Sharif R. Effects of iron supplementation and nutrition education on haemoglobin, ferritin and oxidative stress in iron-deficient female adolescents in Palestine: randomized control trial. East Mediterrer Health J. 2018;24(6):560-568. Published 2018 Jul 29. doi:10.26719/2018.24.6.560 Source
    8. Mielgo-Ayuso J, Zourdos MC, Calleja-GonzĂĄlez J, CĂłrdova A, Fernandez-LĂĄzaro D, Caballero-GarcĂ­a A. Eleven Weeks of Iron Supplementation Does Not Maintain Iron Status for an Entire Competitive Season in Elite Female Volleyball Players: A Follow- UpStudy. nutrients. 2018;10(10):1526. Published 2018 Oct 17. doi:10.3390/nu10101526 Source
    9. Clenin GE. The treatment of iron deficiency without anemia (in otherwise healthy persons). Swiss Med Wkly. 2017;147:w14434. Published 2017 Jun 14. doi:10.4414/smw.2017.14434 Source
    10. Mistry R, ​​Hosoya H, Kohut A, Ford P. Iron deficiency in heart failure, an underdiagnosed and undertreated condition during hospitalization. Ann Hematol. 2019;98(10):2293-2297. doi:10.1007/s00277-019-03777-w Source
    Back to blog
    Vorheriger Beitrag

    NĂ€chster Beitrag

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.