How to Get Enough Iron and B12 on a Vegan Diet

Last Update: September 28, 2022

It’s hard out there for a vegetarian or vegan. Being the odd man out at barbecues: “Oh…we didn’t make anything veggie…there’s coleslaw?” Getting criticized at the dinner table: “That’s weird. But bacon is soooo good.”

Not to mention the challenge of getting all the right vitamins and minerals. If not careful, vegetarians and vegans can easily become deficient in two key nutrients: iron and vitamin B12.

Iron is critical for hemoglobin production. This protein facilitates red blood cells in delivering oxygen throughout the body. Low levels of oxygen can cause not only shortness of breath, but also inflame the sympathetic nervous system, causing irritability, anxiousness, and lack of focus. Eventually, it can lead to anemia.

Optimally, women between the ages of 19 and 50 need around 18 milligrams of iron each day. Fortunately, the leafy green vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fortified cereals that many vegetarians and vegans swear by are great sources of iron. However, these are non-heme iron—not as easily absorbed as the heme iron found in animal protein. Easy fix: Pair these plant-based foods with others rich in vitamin C, which greatly improves their absorption.

So, in addition to spinach and kale (which happen to be high in vitamin C anyway) and whole grain bread and pasta, add broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower, and berries into the mix. “Cooking food in a cast iron skillet can help increase the amount of iron in foods as well,” advises registered dietician, Kathryn Bloxsom.

Now B12 is a little trickier for strict vegetarians and vegans, since it only comes from animal sources like meat and dairy. This elusive nutrient is vital for making red blood cells, nerves, and DNA. The average adult needs 2.4 micrograms per day.

A B12 deficiency can get pretty serious, starting with numbness in the hands, impaired ability to walk, cognitive difficulties, and severe joint pain—all freaky symptoms that would make anyone wonder what the heck is happening to their body—potentially leading to neurological issues. If these symptoms sound familiar, better get yourself to the doctor for a diagnosis.

Before these symptoms occur, vegetarians and vegans should go ahead and supplement for B12. One way to do this is to ingest nutritional yeast. “Sprinkling it on foods can help ensure adequate B12 in the diet,” says Bloxsom. But for some, it’s not enough. Try a supplement first, but in some cases, if the symptoms do show up despite nutritional yeast or vitamins, the only way to fully absorb B12 may be in liquid form—either via a spray or regular injections.

So, vegans and vegetarians, we can’t promise your dietary choices won’t endure lots of annoying dinnertime comments from friends—but the good news is, you can tune them out. If you’re eating a balanced plant-based diet, and taking necessary supplements, it’s likely that what’s on your plate trumps what’s on theirs.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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