Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially
good sources of iron, even better on a per calorie basis than meat. Iron
absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C
along with foods containing iron. Vegetarians do not have a higher
incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters.
Heme vs. Non-heme Iron
an essential nutrient because it is a central part of hemoglobin, which
carries oxygen in the blood. Iron deficiency anemia is a worldwide
health problem that is especially common in young women and in children.
Iron is found in food in two forms, heme and non-heme iron.
Heme iron, which makes up 40 percent of the iron in meat, poultry, and
fish, is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, 60 percent of the iron in animal
tissue and all the iron in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts) is
less well absorbed. Vegan diets only contain non-heme iron. Because of
this, iron recommendations are higher for vegetarians (including vegans)
than for non-vegetarians. The RDA for iron is 14 milligrams per day for
vegetarian men and for women after menopause, and 33 milligrams per day
for women prior to menopause .
Iron Status in Vegans
might expect that since the vegan diet contains a form of iron that is
not that well absorbed, vegans might be prone to developing iron
deficiency anemia. However, surveys of vegans have found that iron
deficiency anemia is no more common among vegetarians than among the
general population although vegans tend to have lower iron stores .
The reason for the satisfactory iron status of many vegans may
be that commonly eaten foods are high in iron, as Table 1 shows. In fact,
if the amount of iron in these foods is expressed as milligrams of iron
per 100 calories, many foods eaten by vegans are superior to
animal-derived foods. This concept is illustrated in Table 2. For example,
you would have to eat more than 1700 calories of sirloin steak to get
the same amount of iron as found in 100 calories of spinach.
Another reason for the satisfactory iron status of vegans is
that vegan diets are high in vitamin C. Vitamin C acts to markedly
increase absorption of non-heme iron. Adding a vitamin C source to a
meal increases non-heme iron absorption up to six-fold which makes the
absorption of non-heme iron as good or better than that of heme iron .
Fortunately, many vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy,
which are high in iron, are also high in vitamin C so that the iron in
these foods is very well absorbed. Commonly eaten combinations, such as
beans and tomato sauce or stir-fried tofu and broccoli, also result in
generous levels of iron absorption.
easy to obtain iron on a vegan diet. Table 3 shows several
menus that would meet the RDA for iron.
calcium and tannins (found in tea and coffee) reduce iron absorption.
Tea, coffee, and calcium supplements should be used several hours before
a meal that is high in iron .
Table 1: Iron Content of Selected Vegan Foods
Soybeans, cooked1 cup8.8
Lentils, cooked1 cup6.6
Spinach, cooked1 cup6.4
Bagel, enriched3 ounces5.2
Lima beans, cooked1 cup4.4
Swiss chard, cooked1 cup4.0
beans, cooked1 cup3.6
Pinto beans, cooked1
Turnip greens, cooked1 cup3.2
Chickpeas, cooked1 cup3.2
Kidney beans, cooked1 cup3.0
Prune juice8 ounces3.0
greens, cooked1 cup2.7
Veggie hot dog1 hot dog2.7
Black-eyed peas, cooked1
Brussels sprouts, cooked1 cup1.9
choy, cooked1 cup1.8
Bulgur, cooked1 cup1.7
Apricots, dried15 halves1.4
Veggie burger, commercial1 patty1.4
Tomato juice8 ounces1.0
Green beans, cooked1 cup1.2
Sunflower seeds1/4 cup1.2
Broccoli, cooked1 cup1.1
Sesame seeds2 Tbsp1.0
Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 18, 2005 and
Manufacturer's information.The RDA for iron for vegetarians is 14
mg/day for adult men and for post-menopausal women and 33 mg/day for
Table 2: Comparison of Iron
Collard greens, cooked3.1
Hamburger, lean, broiled1.2
Sirloin steak, choice, broiled0.9
Chicken, breast roasted, no skin0.6
Pork chop, pan fried0.4
Table 3: Sample Menus ProvidingGenerous Amounts of Iron
1 serving Oatmeal Plus 3.8
serving Tempeh/Rice Pocket Sandwich 4.7
Dinner: 1 serving
Black-Eyed Peas and Collards 2.11
Corn Bread 2.61
Breakfast: Cereal with 8 ounce of Soy Milk1.5
Lunch: 1 serving Creamy Lentil Soup 6.0
1/4 cup Sunflower Seeds1.2
Dinner: 1 serving Spicy
Sautéed Tofu with Peas 14.0
1 cup Bulgur1.7
1 cup Spinach6.4
Sprinkled with 2
Tbsp Sesame Seeds1.0
Additional foods should be
added to these menus to provide adequate calories and to meet
requirements for nutrients besides iron.
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary
Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium,
Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium,
and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.
- Haddad EH, Berk LS, Kettering JD, Hubbard RW, Peters WR.
Dietary intake and biochemical, hematologic, and immune status of vegans
compared with nonvegetarians. Am J Clin Nutr
- Obeid R, Geisel
J, Schorr H, et al. The impact of vegetarianism on some haematological
parameters. Eur J Haematol. 2002;69:275-9.
- Hallberg L. Bioavailability of dietary iron in man. Ann Rev
- Gleerup A,
Rossander Hulthen L, Gramatkovski E, et al. Iron absorption from the
whole diet: comparison of the effect of two different distributions of
daily calcium intake. Am J Clin Nutr 1995;61:97-104.