Iron Bioavailability – What Does it Mean for Plant-Based Babies?

Certain food sources of iron are better absorbed than others. What does this mean for babies raised on plants? This post will ease your mind about how to boost your baby’s iron status using plant foods.

Toddler holding up grapefruit halves to his eyes

What The Research Says

Research tells us that vegetarians and omnivores eat similar amounts of (and sometimes slightly more) iron.

That being said, there are certain things that can impact how much iron is actually absorbed by the body.

Vegetarians tend to have lower blood levels of iron than omnivores do, though research also says this may not necessarily be a bad thing.

However, plant-based children can be at a higher risk for iron deficiency than non-vegetarian children, making it important to pay attention to factors that can impact how much iron is absorbed.

Some of the dietary factors that can impact iron absorption on a plant-based diet are outlined below.

Factors That Can Reduce Iron Absorption

Plant-based diets can be high in compounds called oxalates and phytates, which can actually interfere with your child’s iron absorption.

Ironically, these compounds are often found in otherwise iron-rich foods.

For instance, phytates are found in grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes (like beans), and oxalates are abundant in things like spinach, beets, beans, oranges, tofu, and sweet potatoes.

This does NOT mean you should stop serving foods that contain these compounds. It just means that your plant-based babe should also be eating enough foods that help boost iron absorption.

We’ll talk about this more below.

Two bowls of iron-rich lentils

How to Boost Iron Absorption

Plants contain “non-heme” iron and animal products contain “heme” iron.

Even though the iron in plants is less bioavailable than the iron in animal products, there are ways to help boost your child’s iron absorption.

Combining plant-based iron sources vitamin-C rich foods increases absorption by at least four times.

Below are some examples of food pairings to enhance iron absorption:

  • A tofu stir fry made with bell peppers
  • Oatmeal made with raspberries
  • A bean dish made with broccoli
  • Lentil soup made with diced tomatoes
  • Baked potatoes with a side of sliced strawberries
  • A snack of pumpkin seeds and orange slices

However, many professionals still recommend using iron-fortified foods as a more reliable way to meet a child’s iron requirements, regardless of whether they eat a lot of vitamin C.

Many (but not all) infant cereals, grain products, and pasta are fortified with iron. Be sure to look at the label to make sure iron has been added.

Make Iron a Regular Part of a Plant-Based Diet

There are many places to find iron on a plant-based diet.

By being aware of iron inhibitors and boosters, and offering a wide variety of healthy fortified and whole plant foods, you can ensure that your child is getting enough of this important mineral.

Read more about the importance of iron for babies here.

Have other questions about iron for plant-based kids? Leave us a comment below!

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