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.