Heather Russell from The Vegan Society finds that there’s plenty of iron for you in plants…
People often worry that cutting out meat will lead to iron deficiency, which is a common nutritional issue all over the world. However, many plant-based foods are rich in iron. Research comparing omnivores with vegetarians and vegans suggests that meat avoidance isn’t linked to lower iron intakes, or lower blood haemoglobin (a protein containing iron). Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to check that you’re getting plenty of iron from your vegan diet.
Targets and sources
In the UK, it’s recommended that most adults aim for a daily iron intake of 8.7mg (milligrams). However, there is a higher target of 14.8mg for those who menstruate to make up for monthly losses; that’s 70% extra!
The first step towards ensuring good iron status is to eat plenty of iron-rich foods on a daily basis. However, that’s not the full story; you need to know a bit about iron absorption too.
Vitamin C helps our bodies to absorb iron. Many plant-based foods contain good amounts – not just citrus fruits! Pepper, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kiwi fruit, strawberries and pineapple are also great sources. Combine them with iron-rich foods to maximise absorption. Here are some tasty examples:
- Top fortified wheat biscuits and soya milk with ground linseed and strawberries.
- Add pepper to a tofu stir-fry.
- Add pineapple to a lentil curry.
Some things can decrease iron absorption, including tea and coffee. Try to avoid drinking them with meals. A glass of water makes a great alternative.
Certain types of juice, such as orange juice, are good sources of vitamin C. However, we need to bear in mind that the recommended daily limit for free sugar equates to about seven teaspoons, including sugar, syrup, and the fruit sugar in juice. If you drink juice with meals, stick to the equivalent of a small glass (150ml) per day. This will help you to look after your teeth.
A baby’s iron stores start to run out around six months of age, so it’s important to offer first foods that are rich in iron, including beans, chickpeas, lentils and tofu. Remember to boost iron absorption by combining them with sources of vitamin C, such as pepper, broccoli, cabbage and mango.
Advice for teens
If you’re 11-18 years old, you need a high quality diet to fuel rapid growth, and your iron target may be different to someone over 18. The target for boys is 11.3mg per day, and 14.8mg is recommended for girls to make up for menstrual losses.
If you need to snack between meals, why not seize the opportunity to boost your daily iron intake? Here are a few ideas:
- Fortified wheat biscuits and soya milk.
- Wholemeal houmous sandwich.
- Glass of soya milk or yoghurt.
- Handful of cashew nuts.
- Extra tip: choose fortified dairy alternatives so that you don’t miss out on essential calcium.
- Eat plenty of iron-rich foods on a daily basis, such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, spinach, ground linseed, kale, raisins, fortified breakfast cereal and quinoa.
- Boost iron absorption by combining these foods with a good source of vitamin C, like pepper, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kiwi fruit, oranges, strawberries, pineapple, grapefruit, or orange juice (up to 150ml per day).
- Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals.
About the author
Heather Russell is passionate about eating well and keeping fit. She trained to be a dietitian to combine her love of science with a desire to help people, and she loves food! She worked in the NHS from 2010-16, and is now using her dietetic skills to support the work of The Vegan Society.