Iron Deficient on a Raw Vegan Diet?

Did you know that 40% of Americans are Iron Deficient?  That includes people eating meat, which is meant to be the preferred source of heme iron.

People are often concerned that when you start a vegan or raw vegan diet you’ll get deficient in iron, but as you can see eating meat does not necessarily protect you.

I have suffered with iron deficiency anaemia at a few different stages in my life –  When I was a young adult, then again when I was pregnant and then more recently as a raw vegan.  The first two times I was eating a diet rich in animal products, including meat.  Eating red meat doesn’t insure you against Iron deficiency anaemia, and in fact, if you’re eating dairy products and caffeine, or you have poor digestion, these things can all prevent absorption of iron.

I suffered with chronic digestive problems for years and this played havoc with my absorption of both Iron and Vitamin B12, the lack of which is also a primary cause of Pernicious Anemia, a specific kind of anemia.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia

Below is a chart showing just how much daily iron you people in various categories need to be getting per day.  If you don’t get enough iron, whether from plant or animal sources then you could find yourself with any of a number of symptoms:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Feeling out of breath with mild activity such as walking up stairs
  • Pale skin (pressing on your nails or bending your palm back can indicate whether you have good blood flow and therefore decent iron levels.
  • Poor appetite, or conversely, overeating
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Depression/low mood

Iron is essential to the body in order to make hemoglobin, a substance found in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues.   Among the very important functions that rely on adequate iron levels are certain brain activities, breathing, and even cellular respiration, which is the process by which cells harvest energy from food.

Iron deficiency effectively means that your organs all get less oxygen, and this will have subsequent effects on all the organs of your body. 

A body deficient in iron must steal it from the bone marrow.   Iron from animal products, known as ‘heme’ iron, is easily absorbed by the body.  Iron from vegetable sources, known as ‘non-heme’ iron, can for some people be a little more difficult to absorb.  Phytates and tannins—contained in wheat products and coffee or tea—and especially lead (from ground water and soil in some areas) can also counter iron absorption.

What about Iron Supplements?

Iron pills or supplements can be risky business. Iron can be stored in the liver and that accumulation becomes toxic to the body over time, so long-term supplementation is definitely not recommended. Make sure you are consuming foods that are high in iron—beetroot, stinging nettles, broccoli, spinach, red berries, watermelon, parsley, raisins, and leafy greens such as kale and collards, for example.

Don’t Forget Vitamin C

Vitamin C is often the missing link to aiding iron absorption, so be sure to also consume foods high in Vitamin C, alongside foods high in iron.  Leafy greens are particularly helpful as they are both high in vitamin C AND iron.  However, too much of those containing oxalic acid (such as spinach, and swiss chard) can interfere with iron absorption, so the best answer is to rotate your leafy greens often . A true iron deficiency is rare.  When it does occur, it is easily resolved by merely consuming the correct foods and tending to the other health needs of the body.  To ensure adequate iron levels on a raw food diet, be sure to eat a wide variety of foods high in iron, along with high Vitamin C foods.

Iron Requirements

The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine recommends the following: 5

Infants and children
Younger than 6 months: 0.27 milligrams per day (mg/day)
7 months to 1 year: 11 mg/day
1 to 3 years: 7 mg/day
4 to 8 years: 10 mg/day

9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
14 to 18 years: 11 mg/day
Age 19 and older: 8 mg/day

9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
14 to 18 years: 15 mg/day
19 to 50 years: 18 mg/day
51 and older: 8 mg/day

Raw vegan sources of iron

Iron in my food plan today. I’m hitting the mark!

Spinach (3 ounces) 3.1 mg
Dandelion greens (3 ounces) 3.1 mg
Kale (3 ounces): 3mg
Beet Greens (3 ounces) 2.6 mg
Red leaf lettuce (3 ounces): 1.2 mg
Turnip Greens (3 ounces) 1.1 mg

Sauerkraut (1 cup): 2.1 mg
Peas (1 cup): 2.1 mg
Pak-choi (1 cup): 0.6 mg
Broccoli (1 cup): 0.6 mg
Tomato (1 large): 0.5 mg
Onion greens (1 ounce): 0.5 mg

Seeds and nuts
Pumpkin seeds (1 ounce): 4.2 mg
Sunflower seeds (1 ounce): 1.5 mg
Almonds (1 ounce): 1.1 mg
Sesame seeds (1 ounce): 0.7 mg


Mulberries (1 cup) 2.6 mg

Plums (1 cup): 2 mg

Black currants (1 cup) 1.7 mg

Blackberries (1 cup) 0.9 mg

Watermelon (1 wedge) 0.7 mg

Blueberries (1 cup) 0.6 mg

Apricots (1 cup): 0.6 mg

Peaches (1 large): 0.5 mg

Grapes (1 cup): 0.5 mg

Pears (1 large): 0.4 mg

Get yourself tested for Iron Deficiency.

If you have any of the above mentioned symptoms it’s really important to get yourself tested for iron deficiency.  But you need to test for both B12 and Iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency tests are fairly standard, but doctors don’t always think to test B12. 

It’s important to test for Serum B12 as well as Homocysteine (an inflammatory marker which is often elevated when B12 levels are low.  The Serum B12 test is not always accurate so it’s better to get a Urinary Methyl Malonic Acid (uMMA) test which would need to be done at a private lab.   If getting a UMMA test is out of your budget, then a combination of serum b12 and homocysteine can be fairly accurate in helping detect if you need to supplement or not.

What to do if you find you are Iron deficient…

Well, you have options, as a raw vegan or high raw vegan, without having to go back to eating red meat.

  • You’ll definitely need to increase your consumption of greens – juice them, blend them, eat big salads.  Any way you can get them in is great.  Try to rotate your greens though.  The Oxalic acid in some greens such as spinach and beet greens can prevent absorption of iron.
  • Take an iron supplement.  If you’re very low in iron this may be the only way of bringing your levels up quickly.  Find a good non-constipating iron supplement.  The great thing is that, if you eat a plant based diet, high in fruits that it is unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself constipated, even while taking iron supplements.
  • Athletic pursuits can further deplete your iron reserves, so take a break from heavy exercise for a bit until you resolve this underlying issue.
  • Supplement with Spirulina and Barley Grass Juice powder.  Spirulina is very high in iron.  Barley Grass Juice powder is very high in all minerals which provide the cofactors for proper iron absorption and health. 

  1. Ultra athlete Tim VanOrden does a great presentation on how to absorb nonheme iron in a raw food plant based diet. He has several YouTube videos on it. Here is one:

  2. My iron was half of what it should have been. After adding a few cups of fresh juiced beets it shot way back up. The doctors couldnt believe it, and I took no supplements. This was menopause related, but they said te iron was a long standing issue.

  3. That’s wonderful to hear, Paula. Thanks for sharing your experience so that others can learn from it 🙂

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