According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. And getting enough iron on a vegan diet can be a challenge. Mainly because the kind of iron in plant-based foods (non-heme iron) is difficult to absorb.
The recommended dietary allowance of iron for an adult man is 8 milligrams a day. For adult women, the required amount is higher at 18 milligrams, since women lose a lot of iron during menstruation.
The National Institutes of Health, a leading US health agency, recommends multiplying these recommendations by 1.8 when following a vegan diet.
Vegans are therefore recommended to consume whole foods and getting their iron levels tested regularly.
In addition, the tips below will help maximize your iron intake and absorption while minimizing deficiencies.
- Eat more iron-rich foods daily
This is such an obvious tip, but sometimes you may end up in a cycle of eating the same foods over and over again, which limits the diversity of iron content plus other nutrient intakes from different varieties of foods.
In general, different kinds of whole foods and minimally processed foods will have more iron than processed and a single food source.
- Avoid taking calcium supplements with iron-rich meals
Calcium prevents the absorption of iron.
In case you’re struggling with low iron levels, and you’re taking calcium supplements, try not to take them with your iron-rich meals.
This also goes to fortified beverages such as plant milk. They are often fortified with calcium, and if struggling with low iron levels, you may want to consume them separately.
- Combine your iron-rich foods with vitamin C rich foods
Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron. In one study, it was shown that the ratio of iron absorption was 2 and 6, respectively, when the amount of vitamin C was increased from 25 to 200 milligrams.
In other words, each time you eat iron-rich foods, pair them with vitamin C rich foods. For example, if you’re eating beans, which are a great source of iron, you can pair them with tomatoes – a great source of vitamin C.
Foods like Swiss chard, broccoli, and potatoes are all excellent choices as they contain both iron and vitamin C.
- Avoid coffee and tea with your meals.
The components in coffee and tea, such as caffeine, tannins, and oxalates, bind with iron, specifically non-heme iron found in plant-based foods, thus inhibiting its absorption. In one study, a cup of black tea reduces the absorption of iron by 60 percent.
So, make sure to drink your coffee or tea between meals and not with meals. Otherwise, you don’t want to eat an iron-rich meal and then wash it down with coffee or tea.
- Soak beans, lentils, and grains before cooking them.
These foods are high in phytic acid, which can make iron absorption difficult. However, soaking them overnight can increase their iron absorption.
Soak them the night before, strain the water out and cook them in freshwater.
Iron deficiency can be a common issue for vegans; however, diversifying on your diet in addition to the above tips can help keep your levels within normal.
But in case your iron levels are still low after trying these tips, you may probably want to check with your doctor to rule out any possible underlying cause of your reduced iron levels.