It’s funny when people find out someone is a vegetarian they often ask what they eat to get all of their daily required nutrients. One of the most common questions I hear is “Are Vegetarians Iron Deficient?”
In this article, I share the risks of becoming iron deficient as a vegetarian. What health concerns put you at higher risk. The symptoms of iron deficiency, how to get tested, and ways to avoid iron deficiency.
Not all vegetarians are iron deficient. Being a vegetarian does put you at higher risk of iron deficiency. Many variables are involved in your personal risk including your dietary choices, health conditions, and if you are pregnant.
Table of Contents
What Does Iron Deficiency Mean?
Iron deficiency means you have less iron in your blood than your body needs to be healthy.
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, which is the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen through the body.
If your body doesn’t have enough hemoglobin your muscles and tissues will not get enough oxygen to work effectively. This can lead to anemia.
Iron Deficiency Symptoms
Iron deficiency can cause symptoms that can effect your daily life.
The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency can vary depending on the severity, your age, your state of health, and how quickly it has developed.
How To Tell If I Am Iron Deficient?
The following are the most common symptoms that people experience with iron deficiency. People with mild to moderate iron deficiency may not even experience any symptoms.
Feeling very tired is one of the most common symptoms of iron defiency.
Having an overall feeling of weakness.
Feelling cranky and moody more often than usual.
People with iron deficiency can experience paleness in their skin. The paleness can be all over their body or be limited to one location.
The most common areas to experiance paleness in you skin are.
- lower eyelids
SHORTNESS OF BREATH
When your hemoglobin levels drop due to iron deficiency, your oxygen levels will also be low. With less oxygen being carried through your body you may experience shortness of breath when doing normal activities like walking and climbing stairs.
Your breathing increases to supply your body with more oxygen.
Some people complain of having a difficult time concentrating while they are experiencing an iron deficiency.
Headaches can be experienced due to iron deficiency. This symptom is more common for women to experience.
Lightnheadedness and dizziness can also be a sympton of low iron.
A less common symptom that can appear in people who have been living with an iron deficiency for a long time.
Hair can become dry, brittle, and can have a difficult time growing. It’s normal to have some daily hair loss. If you are experiencing more hair loss than normal it may be caused by iron deficiency.
Your nails may be more dry and brittle than normal.
SWELLING AND MOUTH SORENESS
Some of the symptoms that can appear in your mouth are.
- swollen tongue
- inflamed tongue
- smooth tongue
- pale tongue
- dry mouth
- burning feeling in your mouth
- sore red cracks at the corner of your mouth
- mouth ulcers
Iron deficiency can be linked to those who experiance restless leg syndrome.
Unusal cravings to non food items like ice, clay, and paper.
COLD HANDS AND FEET
With less oxygen being circulated in your body you may experience cold hands and feet.
Lack of iron may cause more frequent infections.
When you are iron deficent you may bruise more easily.
Iron Deficiency In Pregnancy
When a woman is pregnant she is at higher risk for iron deficiency.
During pregnancy, a woman needs double the amount of iron to make more blood. The additional blood helps carry oxygen to the growing baby.
Severe anemia during pregnancy can cause premature birth, low birth weight, and postpartum depression.
Many of the symptoms of low iron during pregnancy are the same as healthy pregnancy symptoms like fatigue. Your doctor will test your iron levels in routine blood tests. If you are concerned about iron deficiency during pregnancy it’s best to speak to your doctor.
For more information please read the Web MD Article on Iron Deficiency During Pregnancy.
Iron Deficiency Testing
When you are visiting your doctor with concerns about iron deficiency your doctor may ask you questions, perform a physical exam and run standard labs.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history.
A physical exam will be preformed looking at your.
- tongue, lips, eyelids for paleness
- fingernails for brittleness
- your heart for irregular heartbeats
- the abdomen for enlarged liver or spleen
- your lungs for rapid or uneven breathing
The doctor will run a standard CBC (complete blood count) to look for lower red blood cell counts, hemoglobin, or mean corpuscular volumes.
If gastrointestinal bleeding is a cause of your anemia the doctor may order the following procedures a fecal occult blood test, colonoscopy, or an upper endoscopy.
What Causes Iron Deficient Anemia?
- Inadequate iron intake in a persons diet
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- History of gastrointestinal surgery
- Increased Iron requirements during pregnancy
- Blood loss during menstruation or internal bleeding
- Rare genetic conditions
- End-stage kidney failure
- Inflammation due to obesity or congestive heart failure
How Is Iron Deficiency Anemia Treated?
Iron deficiency can be treated in many ways depending on the severity and its cause.
Some of the treatments may include.
- Iron supplements
- Dietary changes
- IV Iron therapy
- Red blood cell transfusions
- surgery to stop internal bleeding if present
How To Increase Your Iron Levels?
The best way to naturally increase your iron levels is to consume a diet with foods that are rich in iron or to take an iron supplement.
Speak with your doctor before making any major dietary changes or adding supplements.
What Are The Best Foods To Eat When You Are Iron Deficient?
As a vegetarian, it’s important to make sure you are eating enough foods that contain iron.
Some vegetarian foods rich in iron are.
- Leafy Greens
- Potatoes (mainly the skins)
- Palm hearts
- Prune juice
- Blackstrap molasses
- Dark chocolate
- Coconut milk
- Dried thyme
There are many animal foods that are rich in iron. As a vegetarian, I didn’t include them on this list. For more iron-rich foods and intake recommendations please read the article by Dr. Axe on the Top 15 Iron-Rich Foods, Recommended Intake And Key Benefits.
How To Increase Your Iron Absorption From Plant-Based Foods
The heme iron that is found in meat is usually easier for the body to absorb than the non-heme iron that is found in plants.
To ensure your body is absorbing as much iron from your foods as it can add some or all of the following tips into your day.
Avoid drinking coffee or tea with your meals – when you drink tea or coffee with your meals it can reduce your iron absorption 50-90%
Eat foods high in vitamin C- eating foods that are high in vitamin c at the same time as non-heme iron-rich foods can aid in the absorption of iron up to 300%
Use a cast-iron pan- foods that are cooked in cast iron have been shown to contain two to three more times iron than food not prepared in cast iron.
Consume foods high in lysine- consuming foods high in lysine like quinoa and legumes may help with iron absorption.
Sprout, Soaking, and Fermenting- When the phytic acid is reduced in your legumes and grains by sprouting, soaking, or fermenting you are able to naturally absorb more iron from your foods.
Is Iron Deficiency Common In Vegetarians?
Vegetarians are at a higher risk for iron deficiency due to the elimination of high iron-containing foods that come from animals.
Vegans have an even higher risk for iron deficiency due to the additional elimination of eggs, dairy, and honey.
If vegetarians do not consume enough B12 through eggs or supplements they can also be at risk for anemia caused by a B12 deficiency.
Does Being A Vegetarian Cause Iron Deficiency?
Being a vegetarian does not cause iron deficiacy.
There are many vegetarians that are not iron deficient. A carefully planned well rounded vegetarian diet full of iron-rich foods along with foods that contain high levels of vitamin C are enough to sustain your iron levels.
On the other hand, if your vegetarian diet doesn’t contain enough iron-rich foods and consists mostly of highly processed “accidental vegetarian” foods you are at much higher risk for iron deficiency and many other health concerns.
Am I iron deficient? – The sure way to find out if you are iron deficient is to speak with your doctor and have the proper evaluation and labs processed.
Why am I iron Deficient? – There are many reasons why you could be iron deficient. The most common reasons are lack of iron in your diet, gastrointestinal issues, blood loss, and increased iron requirements due to pregnancy.
Can I donate blood if I am iron Deficient? –The American Red Cross will test your hemoglobin levels before giving blood. If your levels are below normal you will not be able to give blood.
What Is non-iron deficiency anemia?- non-iron deficiency anemia is caused by a lack of hemoglobin, not from the lack of iron.
Does iron deficiency cause anemia?- Iron deficiency can cause anemia. If your body does not have enough iron it will not be able to make enough hemoglobin. When you have low hemoglobin it’s possible for iron deficiency anemia to develop.
Is there a difference between iron deficiency and anemia? Yes, anemia is low hemoglobin levels where iron deficiency is low iron.
Can Iron deficiency cause allergies? – In general iron deficiency does not cause allergies. Some of the treatments used to help people with iron deficiency may cause allergies.
Vegetarians are at a higher risk for iron deficiency compared to their meat eating counterparts due to the elimination of high iron animal products.
Women who menstruate or are pregnant are at increased risk. Pregnant women require double the amount of iron as nonpregnant women due to the increase in blood and oxygen required for the growing baby.
There are a few health conditions that put a person at higher risk. Gastrointestinal issues, inflammation, obesity, and kidney failure all increase your risk of iron deficiency.
A doctor will be able to diagnose iron deficiency through a physical exam and standard labs.
Iron deficiency can usually be treated with dietary changes or iron supplements.
To avoid iron deficiency as a vegetarian speak to your doctor about your diet. A vegetarian diet that is full of iron and vitamin c rich foods should be able to prevent iron deficiency.