Dietary iron is strongly associated with meat consumption. But is iron deficiency really an issue on a plant-based diet? Are vegans more prone to anemia? In this interview, Dr. Michael Greger reveals the advantages of plant-based iron over animal-derived iron.
Table Of Contents
- Introducing Dr. Michael Greger & the Vegan Nutrition Concerns Series
- Dr. Greger on How to Get Iron on a Plant-Based a Vegan Diet
- The "Superiority" of Plant-Based Iron
- In Closing...
How to get iron a vegan diet is a top concern among those new to plant-based eating. Given that dietary iron is generally associated with meat consumption, vegans are often portrayed as pale and weak due to iron deficiency.
You may be wondering: Are vegans prone to anemia? What are plant-based sources of iron? Do all vegans need to take an iron supplement?
To answer common questions about how to get iron on a vegan diet, I called in an expert who knows all about nutrients: Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org.
Introducing Dr. Michael Greger & the Vegan Nutrition Concerns Series
Dr. Greger is a licensed general practitioner specializing in clinical nutrition, an author, and an internationally-recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and matters of public health.
This interview is the fourth in the Vegan Nutrition Concerns Series with Dr. Greger. This series addresses common nutrient-specific concerns related to a plant-based diet, and touches upon the health impacts of animal products.
Dr. Greger on How to Get Iron on a Plant-Based a Vegan Diet
The following transcript of my interview with Dr. Greger (from the video above) is edited for clarity, order, and readability.
Heme Iron vs. Non-Heme Iron & Iron Deficiency vs. Iron Toxicity
Dr. Greger: People eating plant-based get more iron too, but it’s the right type of iron—it’s non-heme iron. The iron in blood and muscles [meat], so-called heme iron, is absorbed whether we need it or not, and iron is a double edged sword.
Iron actually acts as a pro-oxidant. Too much of it can increase our risk for liver damage, diabetes, and heart disease. [If we don’t have] enough of it though, we can’t make enough red blood cells [and] we can become anemic.
When we don’t have enough iron, [our intestine] absorbs more. When we have too much iron, then it absorbs less. So, [non-heme iron is] perfect; [it] keeps us right where we need to be.
But that’s only with non-heme iron. That’s the iron that we evolved [with] for at least the first 23 out of 25 million years of our evolution. It’s almost all [from] plant sources, and so, our bodies know how to regulate that.
Heme iron slips through our intestines, whether we have too much of it or not.
Can You Have Too Much Iron?
Dr. Greger: [P]articularly with men…too much iron [causes] extra oxidative stress.
Women are less likely to suffer [from that oxidative stress] because they have, at least during reproductive age, monthly blood loss. So, [those women] can keep iron levels from getting too high.
Are Vegans More Likely to Be Anemic?
Dr. Greger: One in twenty menstruating women have iron-deficiency, [known as] anemia. That’s the same for vegans, omnivores, and vegetarians.
Vegans don’t have higher rates [than others], but one in 20 is a pretty bad rate, period. So, we need to get good sources of iron.
Vegan Plant-Based Sources of Iron
Dr. Greger: Where do we get iron? Beans and greens…[A]lso dried fruits are a good source to get some of these minerals as well.
The “Superiority” of Plant-Based Iron
As Dr. Greger pointed out, there are plenty of healthy vegan sources of iron: beans and greens being excellent options. In fact, these are even better iron sources on a per calorie basis than meat.
For example, you would have to eat more than 1,700 calories of sirloin steak (28 ounces) to get the same amount of iron found in 100 calories of cooked spinach (2.5 cups).
One of the great advantages of (most) vegan diets is that they are high in vitamin C, which acts to increase the absorption of non-heme iron by about sixfold when eaten in combination with iron-containing foods. Many vegan foods, including broccoli and bok choy, have naturally co-occurring iron and vitamin C.
Other vegan iron sources include breads, cereals, grains, quinoa, oatmeal, dried apricots or figs, raisins, raw or cooked mushrooms, tofu, lentils, sunflower seeds, and cashews.
A note of caution: Iron supplements can become toxic if you take too much. If you plan to supplement, please do so under the care of a physician and get your levels checked regularly.
I hope you enjoyed hearing from Dr. Greger on the topic of how to get iron on a plant-based vegan diet.
I’d love to hear from you: Where do you get your iron on a vegan diet? Have you had any problems with iron levels? Let me know in the comments!
— Emily Moran Barwick
Please note that when it comes to your health and nutrition, there is no substitute for the guidance of a trained medical professional, especially if you have any medical conditions or complications.
Finding a plant-based provider can be challenging, depending on your location and health insurance (or lack thereof). In the accordion below are online directories for plant-based providers. I hope to expand the list to include ones that serve more countries. If you know of any additional directories, please let me know!
Plant-based medical provider directories
Please note: in listing these directories, I am not recommending or endorsing them or any health care providers listed within them.
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) (Worldwide)
- Plantrician Providers (U.S.)
- Plant-Based Health Professionals (UK)
- Plant-Based Canada (Canada)
- Vegan Friendly Registered Dietitians (Worldwide – telehealth) from Challenge22
Do you know of other directories? Especially ones serving more parts of the world? Please let me know!
MORE FROM THE VEGAN NUTRITION CONCERNS SERIES:
- The Crime Of Raising Vegan Kids | When Diet Is Deadly
- How NOT To DIE: Foods That Add Years | Dr. Michael Greger
- Deadly Nutrition: The REAL Dietary Killers | Dr. Michael Greger
- Carnitine, Carnosine & Creatine, OH MY! | Dr Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- Iodine & Thyroid Health for Vegans | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- Zinc Deficiency & Male Emissions | Dr Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- B12 On A Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- Is A Vegan Diet Vitamin D Deficient? | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- How to Get Calcium on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- How to Get Omega-3 on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
I live in Vietnam. Water Spinach is very popular here and rich in iron too.
Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) says
great to know! thanks for sharing :)
Hi Emily! I was diagnosed with severe anemia being vegetarian 6 years ago and I went back to eating meat for 4 years. I’ve been vegan for a month and eating mostly whole foods (lots of spinach and greens) but I just got my bloodwork back and my iron levels are super low. I have to start supplementing :( Is there a way to ensure that this does not happen again?
I am vegan and anemic. Doctors enjoy telling me where my problem is – not eating meet. I would appreciate to have some verbal munition to protect myself from these attacks… For example to cite a study proving that “Vegans don’t have higher rate”.
There are anemic iron-defficient vegans and it would be marvelous to provide them with some tips how to react whem they are “under attack” (studies? Citations?)