Iron is an essential nutrient that is most commonly found in red meat. Can vegetarians still get adequate iron by consuming an iron vitamin? We’ve answered common questions to help you determine if you’re consuming enough iron to prevent iron deficiency and associated anemia.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the United States. The food we eat is the primary source of all of our vitamins and minerals, so if one food group is missing from your diet, it’s vital to take different supplements to avoid any nutritional deficiencies. So who needs to take iron tablets, and what's a safe amount?
What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that the body uses for necessary growth and development of hemoglobin, hormones, and myoglobin. The main job of iron in our bodies is to carry oxygen to various tissues and organs. When this job is compromised by low iron levels, there can be various negative effects on the body.
Why it’s important to get enough iron
When you’re iron deficient you may notice fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, brittle hair, skin, and nails, tongue swelling and more. When iron levels become critically low, iron deficiency anemia develops, due to a an insufficient number of red blood cells.
Signs and symptoms of Iron deficiency anemia
Signs of anemia can be nonspecific, subtle and often difficult to recognize. The most commonly associated symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Brittle or damaged hair, skin, nails
- Tongue swelling
- Cravings for ice or other mineral rich substances
- Brain fog
- Weakened immune system
Can Iron deficiency anemia affect me and my unborn baby during pregnancy?
Yes! Iron deficiency anemia, during pregnancy, has been associated with an increased risk of low birth weight, preterm delivery, and perinatal mortality. In addition, there may be an association between maternal iron deficiency anemia and postpartum depression, with poor mental and psychomotor performance testing in offspring
Vegetarians need to be mindful of their iron intake
You might be thinking “iron isn’t just found in meat,” and you’re right! There is a good amount of iron found in vegetables, seeds, and other plant-based foods; however, the way our bodies absorb iron is what puts vegetarians more at risk for iron deficiency. While meat and plants both contain iron, our bodies absorb iron found in meat more efficiently than the iron found in plants. Some common vegetarian substitutes (like soy) can even make this absorption more difficult for the body.
Foods that are good sources of iron for vegetarians include plant-based foods such as legumes, seeds, nuts, dried fruit, green leafy vegetables, and wholegrains.
How vegetarians in particular may benefit from iron supplementation
Consuming a vegetarian diet undoubtedly puts some individuals at more risk for iron deficiency. When you’re not consuming red meat in your diet, you’re avoiding one of the most iron-rich foods there is, so taking a regular iron vitamin is a great way to replenish your iron levels and avoid iron deficiency. There are also many benefits to taking an iron capsule besides avoiding deficiency, including more energy and decreased risk of ovulatory infertility.
Guidelines for iron supplementation
Daily iron needs vary from person to person and is influenced by age, sex, lifestyle, and health condition. Menstruating women, ages of 18-50, need about 18 mg of iron per day, whereas men and non-menstruating women in this age group only need about eight mg. If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, an avid athlete or runner, or have certain medical conditions, you may require more iron. As always, we recommend speaking to your doctor about any concerns regarding nutritional deficiencies and supplementation.
Iron is an essential nutrient for the body that carries oxygen to different tissues and can impact our overall health, energy levels, and even fertility. Vegetarians and pregnant or breastfeeding women are high-risk for becoming iron deficient. If you’re worried about your iron intake, you should consider using an oral iron supplement to complement your diet. Check out Natalist iron vitamins that are vegan, low toxicity, gluten-free, soy-free, and doctor approved.