Iron Deficiency: Can a Vegan Diet Cause Low Iron?

What Is Iron Deficiency?

Iron deficiency, or iron deficiency anemia, is a condition where the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. Due to the body’s lack of iron, the body cannot produce hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in the blood. Without an ample supply of hemoglobin, tissues in the body do not receive adequate amounts of oxygen.

Iron deficiency can lead to many symptoms, the most common are feeling tired and experiencing shortness of breath.

Since red meat is a major source of iron for most people, there has been speculation on a vegan diet causing iron deficiency.

The truth is, individuals on a vegan diet can have iron deficiency due to a lack of consuming iron-rich foods like red meat (ex. cow, boar, elk). However, many plant-based, vegan-friendly foods offer high iron content. Some of these foods include tofu, spinach, and dried apricots. With a balanced diet of plant-based iron-rich foods, vegans should have a suitable amount of iron to reach the recommended daily intake (RDI).

As well, vegans also have the option of iron supplementation.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, two common symptoms of iron deficiency include tiredness and shortness of breath.

Here is a list of other possible symptoms of iron deficiency:

  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion, loss of concentration
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Pale skin
  • Hair loss, brittle nails
  • Pica: cravings for dirt, clay, ice, or other non-food items

The above symptoms are sourced from the Harvard School of Public Health.

If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, please consult your physician for medical attention.

Reasons Why Vegans May Be Iron Deficient

The obvious reason why a vegan may be iron deficient is that they neglect to include iron-rich foods in their diet. The term Junk Food Vegan (someone who does not consume nutrient-rich foods) can be used to describe this type of dietary lifestyle.

Additionally, cis women and transmen who still experience their menstrual cycle may be more prone to iron deficiency due to a significant loss in blood.

A study reported that ferritin (an iron-containing biomarker) levels were significantly lower in cis women during their menstrual cycle. Furthermore, their ferritin levels continue to drop the longer the cycle lasts.

The ferritin level and physical functions were found to decrease significantly as the duration of menstruation increased.

U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine

This information suggests cis women and transmen (vegan or non-vegan) who still have their menstrual cycles should increase their intake of iron-rich foods.

Two Main Sources of Iron

Let’s review a little lesson on where our iron comes from.

We get our iron from food in two forms, heme, and non-heme food sources. Heme comes from animal products, while non-heme comes from plant-based products.

Heme is found only in animal flesh like meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens.

Harvard School of Public Health

It has been common thought for people to assume vegans are iron deficient because they lack red meat in their diet. However, this is only true if the individual does not include plant-based, non-heme iron sources in their diet.

Let’s compare gram for gram the iron content from heme and non-heme food sources.

Heme Source Grams per Serving Iron (%) Non-Heme Source Grams per Serving Iron (%)
Steak  100 g 13% Tofu 100 g 30%
Chicken 100 g 7% Dried Apricots 100 g 15%
Salmon 100 g 3% Beans 100 g 11%

This table layout out three common grocery store food items that provide both heme and non-heme iron. You can see that gram for gram, non-heme iron sources like the above mentioned have more than double the amount of iron than the listed heme food sources. And non-heme food sources such as beans have more than triple the amount of iron than salmon!

Recommended Dietary Allowance of Iron

A study on dietary reference intakes suggests that men and postmenopausal women should consume 8 mg per day. Premenopausal women are suggested to consume 18 mg per day.

It should be noted that the suggestions in this study took fetal requirements in pregnancy and menstrual losses into consideration.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for all age groups of men and postmenopausal women is 8 mg/day; the RDA for premenopausal women is 18 mg/day

National Center for Biotechnology Information

How to Prevent Iron Deficiency on a Vegan Diet

So far in this article, I’ve mentioned three iron-rich, non-heme food sources (tofu, dried apricots, and beans). Aside from that, those wanting to consume more plant-based iron-rich rich can look to fortified breakfast cereals, dark chocolate (at least 45%), lentils, spinach, potato with skin, nuts, seeds, enriched rice, or bread

Additionally, supplements are a quick, easy, and effective way of sourcing non-heme iron.

Recommended vegan-friendly iron supplement: Solgar Gentle Iron (Iron Bisglycinate) 25mg, Non-Constipating, Non-GMO, 180 Vegetable Capsules

Conclusion

The topic of vegans being iron deficient has been a running joke for quite some time. I hope to dispel that sentiment with this article and all the data sourced from Mayo Clinic, NIH, Harvard, and the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information).

So, to answer the question, “can a vegan diet cause iron deficiency?” succinctly:

Yes … if they neglect to include iron-rich foods and/or in their diet.

Please note that these findings are consistent with the information available to me from my own research. Information published typically comes straight from a company source, study, and/or scholarly article. If you find incorrect information within any of my articles, please feel welcome to contact me with a trusted source to back your proposed update.