Hi friends! Today we are discussing another micronutrient that is often of concern for people on plant-based diets (although it can be a concern for many people on non-plant based diets, as well) and I want to help those who are trying plant-based diets of any kind to be wise about their diet, because going plant-based elicits a few nutrition-specific concerns (more on that here). Specifically, we are chatting about iron. What is iron? And who is at risk for iron deficiency?
I hope this post is helpful if you are curious about how much of the micronutrient you need, and how you can ensure you get enough iron. If you take anything away from this post, I hope it’s that while many people suggest fortified cereals and multivitamins as dietary sources of iron, these sources do not always contain iron. Organic cereals and many gummy multivitamins do not contain iron, so be sure to read labels if you rely on these products as sources of iron in your diet.
Anyways, let’s dive in! Iron time!
Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy adults. Your needs may vary based on medical status, lifestyle, or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical care.
What is Iron? And What Do You Need it?
Iron is a mineral that is an essential component of hemoglobin, a red blood cell protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to tissues all over your body.
In addition to playing a major role in ensuring oxygen is delivered to tissues throughout the body, iron supports muscle metabolism and fosters healthy connective tissue. It’s also essential for neurological development and physical growth, and the synthesis of certain hormones.
What are the two major types of iron found in food?
There are two main forms of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal foods, including meat, eggs, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods.
Heme iron has a higher bioavailability as compared to non-heme iron, meaning your body absorbs it better.
How much iron do I need?
The amount of iron you need depends on your age, gender, and life-stage.
- Birth to 6 months: 0.27 mg
- 7-12 months: 11mg
- 1-3 years: 7mg
- 4-8 years: 10mg
- 9-13 years: 8mg
- 14-18 years female: 15mg; 14-18 years male: 11mg
- 19-50 years female: 18mg; 19-50 years male: 8mg
- Pregnancy: 27mg
- Lactation: 9-10mg
- 51+ years: 8mg
What foods contain iron?
Many foods naturally contain iron, and many foods have iron added to them. Cereals and instant oatmeal packets are often fortified with iron. Some veggie burgers and plant-milks are also fortified with iron. Read labels to see how much iron your foods contain.
- Fortified breakfast cereals (1 cup): 5-18mg depending on the brand/variety. Several varieties (such as Total, and Kellogg’s All-Bran Wheat Flakes) contain 18+ mgs per cup
- Cream of Wheat (3 tablespoons): ~9.9 grams
- Oysters (3 ounces): 8mg
- White beans (1 cup): 8mg
- Beef liver (3 ounces): 5mg
- Cooked Lentils (½ cup): 3mg
- Tofu (½ cup): 3 mg
- Dark Chocolate (40grams – slightly less than ¼ cup): 2.7 mg
- 1 medium baked potato: 2mg
- Chickpeas (½ cup): 2mg
- Beef (3 ounces): 2mg
- Cocoa Powder (1 tablespoon): 1.44mg
- Chicken, roasted with skin (3 ounces): 1mg
- Molasses (1 tablespoon): 0.944mg
Foods high in phytates (like many legumes, some nuts, and grains) and polyphenols (found in cereals and legumes) can also inhibit iron absorption. Tannins (found in tea) can also limit absorption. Vitamin C, however, can help absorption.
Iron supplements can also supply iron. Many people who take iron supplements experience GI symptoms, including constipation and nausea. Pairing the supplement with food can help reduce symptoms.
What are some common foods you might think have iron, but don’t?
Many people rely on fortified cereals or supplements to meet their iron needs. But, it’s important to note that not all cereals and not all multivitamins contain iron.
For example, most organic cereals and grain products are not fortified, and contain little to no iron. If you rely on cereal for your iron or b vitamin needs, be sure to read labels and select fortified cereals, consider getting your iron from other foods, or take a supplement.
When you are looking at dietary supplements, it’s important to note that many multivitamins, especially gummy multivitamins, do not contain iron. That’s right – many gummy multivitamins do not contain iron, including many prenatal gummy vitamins.
Be sure to read your supplement labels – especially if you are taking a gummy prenatal – and if your supplement does not contain iron, incorporate a different iron supplement, or consider getting your iron from foods (depending on your needs).
Who is at risk of iron deficiency?
There are many groups of people that should carefully monitor their iron intake, as they may be at risk for deficiency. Because they must increase their blood volume and the amount of red blood cells to support their infants, pregnant women require more iron, and thus, pregnant women are at risk for iron deficiency. Maternal iron deficiency leads to an increased risk of maternal and infant death, as well as premature death.
Concerningly, as mentioned above, some prenatal gummy vitamins don’t contain iron. Make sure you check your supplements and consult your doctor or health care professional if you are pregnant and concerned about your iron status.
Infants and young children are also at risk of iron deficiency, especially if their mothers were deficient while they were in the womb. Because young children grow so quickly, they have high iron needs. Exclusively breastfed infants require supplemental iron around 4 months of age, as the iron in breastmilk become inadequate to meet their increasing needs. Supplement drops are often used to supply the additional iron, and many infant cereals are fortified with iron.
Women with heavy periods may also be at an increased risk of iron deficiency. Women of childbearing age have higher iron needs compared to men and women of non-childbearing age, and if they have heavy menstrual cycles, the large amount of blood lost during their periods increases their risk for iron deficiency.
Individuals with gastrointestinal disorders (like Celiac, Chorn’s disease, or Ulcerative colitis), and/ or those who have had GI surgery are also at increased risk of deficiency due to malabsorption.
Other groups of people. like those with cancer and heart failure, or those who have had major blood loss due to an accident, etc, are also at increased risk of iron deficiency, and should work with their clinical care team to ensure they are of proper nutrient status.
Certain medications, like Protein Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) can inhibit iron absorption.
Individuals who don’t eat many iron-rich foods are also at risk of iron deficiency. Vegetarians and vegans who do not seek out iron-rich foods may be at risk, as well, as many plant-sources of iron are not as bioavailable as animal-based sources, and many plant-based protein sources (like beans) contain phytates, which inhibit iron absorption.
If you follow a plant-based diet (and even if you don’t) and have a low iron intake, consider incorporating fortified cereals or other iron-rich foods, and pair them with Vitamin C-rich foods, to increase absorption. You can read more about nutrition for plant-based diets here.
What is Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Iron deficiency anemia (or IDA) is a common type of anemia that develops as a result of having inadequate iron in your body.
People with IDA often experience fatigue, tiredness, and chest pain. Some with mild IDA may not have any noticeable symptoms.
Undiagnosed, untreated IDA can lead to heart failure and developmental delays in children.
If you suspect you have anemia, it is important to work with your health care professional to determine if it is IDA or another kind of anemia (there are actually several types of anemia, and things like folate status, B-12 status, iron status, and chronic disease can all be risk factors for different kinds of anemia, and proper diagnosis is important for proper treatment).
Can You Get Too Much Iron?
Yes, you can get too much iron. Consuming more than 20mg/kg or iron from supplements or medications is associated with several unpleasant side effects including stomach upset, constipation, vomiting, faintness, and pain, especially if taken on an empty stomach.
These side effects are often amplified in pregnant women due to their naturally elevated levels of certain hormones that impact digestion.
Most healthy adults with normal intestinal function aren’t at high risk for iron overload. However, mega-doses of iron (such as 60mg/kg) can lead to organ failure, coma, and death. If you are considering taking an iron supplement, be sure to consult a clinician (such as a doctor or dietitician) who knows you and your medical history.
A disease known as hemochromatosis, caused by a gene mutation, leads to buildup of iron in the blood, and can lead to iron toxicity in the body. This disease requires careful treatment.
Iron is an important mineral that’s essential for your body to be able to deliver oxygen to your tissues. Many people and populations are at risk for iron deficiency, putting them at risk for iron deficiency anemia and other adverse health effects. Small growing children and women of child-bearing age have higher iron needs compared to others. Frequent blood donors should also monitor their iron status.
There are many food sources of iron. Heme iron comes from animal foods and is better-absorbed. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods and fortified cereals. If you rely on plant foods or supplements for iron, be sure to read labels to ensure you are selecting iron-fortified foods, because many cereals (especially organic cereals) and many vitamins (especially gummy multivitamins) do not contain iron.
If you liked “What is Iron? And Who is at risk for Iron Deficiency,” You May also Like:
- Nutrition for Vegans: What You Need to Know If You’re on a Plant-Based Diet
- What You Need To Know About Vitamin B-12, Especially If You’re Vegan
- What are Omega-3s? And what does the science say about Omega-3 supplements?