Can babies get enough iron from plant foods? Where do you find iron without meat, eggs, and dairy products? How concerned should you be about iron deficiency among plant-based kids? This post answers these questions and more.
If you’ve heard that iron is a hard nutrient to find on a plant-based diet, or that plant-based kids are automatically at high risk for iron deficiency, this article is for you.
(Spoiler alert: neither of those claims are necessarily true!)
Today we’re going to talk some truth about iron deficiency risk and plant-based diets and where to find iron in plant foods.
Iron Deficiency in Plant-Based Kids – What Does the Research Say?
Let’s clear one thing up first. Anyone, especially kids (because of their increased iron needs), can become deficient in iron. Iron deficiency isn’t just a concern for vegetarians.
A 2017 review of literature looked at the iron status of male and female vegetarians between the ages of four months and 20 years. It included studies from nine different countries.
Though the outcomes varied between studies, the authors concluded that vegetarian children should routinely have their iron levels checked. (You can speak with your child’s pediatrician and request an iron screening at regular wellness exams.)
And while the authors agree that iron deficiency is common among children regardless of whether they eat animal products, it does appear to be more common among plant-based kids.
They suggested several reasons for this:
- The type of iron in plant foods isn’t absorbed as well as the type in animal foods
- Certain compounds in plants can work against iron absorption
- Many experts agree that iron requirements for plant-based kids is around 1.8 times higher than omnivorous kids, which can make needs more difficult to meet
Other research says that vegetarians and omnivores actually eat similar amounts of iron overall.
Iron stores of vegetarians tend to be lower than those of omnivores, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The long-term impacts of low iron stores is unknown among vegetarians.
On the other hand, having high iron stores can actually increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome. This refers to conditions like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol that increase risk of chronic diseases.
Iron-Rich Ideas for Babies
Iron is found in a TON of plant foods. Some of our favorite ways to serve iron-rich foods to kids are below.
- Hummus (3 Tbsp = 1 mg)
Serve with bell pepper strips for a great after-school snack
- Tofu (3 oz = 2.5mg)
Serve tofu chunks in Buddha bowls and stir fries
- Sprouted grain toast (1 slice = 1 mg iron)
Spread with a thin smear of peanut butter – this works great for baby led weaning!
- Chickpea pasta (1 oz = 3mg iron)
This goes well with any sauce and is a hit with kids
- Quinoa (½ cup = 1.5mg iron)
Serve this as “fried rice” with a variety of colorful veggies
For more information on factors that can boost and inhibit iron absorption on a plant-based diet, see this article.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line with iron and plant-based diets is that it doesn’t have to be the cause for alarm many people make it out to be.
Offer your child a wide variety of iron-rich plant foods and check out these ways to boost iron absorption.
Many of these are probably things your family does already. And if you don’t, we bet that a few small adjustments are all your babe needs to be iron-strong.
which iron-fortified cereal do you recommend? we are avoiding all processed foods for our 8 month old baby, but it appears that we may not be meeting the 11 mg/day suggested amount of iron for him. all of the cereals i see (even organic and non-GMO) have additives and ingredients that we’d like to avoid. we have your PBJ cookbook and love it btw! thank you
We like Earth’s Best
Jennifer Rysdam says
Do you recommend chia seeds in smoothies or chia pudding?
Hi – we serve earth’s best cereal fortified with iron but I always make it with calcium fortified soy or pea milk – is this inhibiting the iron absorption? should I used a non fortified plant milk for this ? if so, which one as they all seem to have calcium in them! thanks so much!
Hi Megan, it is likely reducing the iron content. You can make it with water or a non-fortified plant milk IF iron levels are a concern. For the “general” public, we don’t worry too much about combining iron rich and calcium rich sources but for babes will smaller appetites and higher needs, we do focus on it. Most of the non-refrigerated options don’t contain added calcium. Check Pacific Foods– I think theirs doesn’t have it added. Westasoy I believe is also unfortified.
I just read a post by Kelly LeVeque on Instagram and she quoted a study from 2018 that basically concluded that plant based toddlers are at risk for iron deficiency. Do you know anything about this study? I have never had my three year old tested for iron levels and had a moment of panic when I read her post. My first thought was to check in with you ladies. Very grateful for the reliable, evidence-based information you offer. Wondering if you would advise having my three year old tested? Thank you!
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency regardless of diet; about 8% of kids in the US are considered iron deficient. Plant-based iron sources are non-heme and animal based sources are non-heme and heme and absorbed better than plant-based, which is why some consider plant-based diets inferior for iron absorption but the reality is a lot more complicated than that. Iron is fairly abundant in a pb diet and therefore plant-based individuals tend to have higher iron intakes compared to omnivores, but the absorption is less. This VeChi study compared the diets of vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous kids and you can see the vegan kids had higher iron intakes. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00394-021-02753-3/tables/2 Bottom line– it’s not hard for plant-based kids to meet iron needs and depending on diet and preferences, some kids may do better on a predominantly plant-based diet with animal-based iron or supplements if iron intake is too low.
And in response to testing– we’d recommend checking with your Ped office to see what’s routine for iron testing. Not sure where you are located; in the US it’s common for iron testing to begin yearly at 1 years old until age 5. My kids do a finger prick test right in the office for hemoglobin and hematocrit.
I have a 3 year old and 18 month old both plant based. We try to focus on high iron foods but is it necessary to supplement them just incase with iron?
Hi Casey– we typically don’t routinely supplement unless there is a known need, but we’d also recommend discussing this with your MD. If there is a history of deficiency anemia then you may want to consider. I am currently using a multivitamin from Whole foods for my kids that contains 5mg of iron to help boost their levels.
Which supplement are you using ?
I’m using Whole Food’s multivitamin with 5mg iron right now with both of my kids.