fbpx News article • NZ Vegetarian Society Skip to content

World Iron Awareness Week 2023

28 August 2023
World Iron Awareness Week 2023

World Iron Awareness Week is happening on 28th August – 3rd September so it is important that everyone is aware of some facts and figures about iron in our diet.

What Is Iron and Why Is It Important?

Iron is a critical nutrient for all living things. Your body uses it as a building block for a protein in your blood called haemoglobin. Haemoglobin transports oxygen through your blood to your organs and tissues. Iron is also part of your muscle tissues. It’s stored in myoglobin, a protein that keeps oxygen in your muscles.

Getting enough iron in your diet is critical, but getting the amount you need requires a delicate balance. Having either too little or too much iron can cause serious problems.

There are two natural forms of iron: haeme and non-haeme iron. Haeme iron is only in animal-derived foods. Non-haeme iron is in plants.

You may have heard the common argument that because iron from plant foods isn’t as easily absorbed as the iron from animal foods, people who avoid animal products have lower iron levels and an increased risk of iron deficiency.

However, research shows that this perception, though widely held in society, is only rarely true. Why? Because most vegans and vegetarians actually consume the same amount of iron as omnivores, and often, they actually consume more.

For example, in a large 2003 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition2, researchers compared nutrient intake among more than 65,000 men and women between the ages of 20 to 97 years. Except for saturated fat (which was highest among omnivores), vegans had the highest intake of all other studied nutrients, across the board — including iron.

It’s true that some vegans and vegetarians may have lower iron stores than omnivores, but this might be a good thing. Research indicates that these lower stores do not lead to higher rates of anaemia. Some evidence3 shows that lower-end-normal iron stores may, in fact, be healthier and may translate into better insulin sensitivity with reduced risk for cancer and heart disease.

If you’re like most people, your intestines have a remarkable ability to alter absorption rates based on how much or how little iron you need. However, this mechanism only works with non-haeme iron.

Haeme iron has higher bioavailability. But as it more-or-less forces its way in [to the body], it’s also much more likely to lead to the many health problems that result from having too much iron, such as developing plaque buildup in your arteries, and increasing the risk for coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

So, it turns out that avoiding haeme iron may be protective for your health — specifically for certain conditions, including metabolic syndrome and heart disease.

How Much Iron Do You Need?

Your body is a pretty adaptable and amazing instrument: It’s able to adjust how much iron it absorbs and uses based on how much is available. As with other nutrients, your iron needs change over time, and they vary based on gender, age, and during different seasons of life.

Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) are intended to meet the needs of the majority of the general population. Here’s the NZ Nutrition Foundation’s RDA for iron:


Iron requirements


Infants 7-12 months


1-3 years


4-8 years


9-13 years


14-18 female


14-18 male


19-70+ male


19-50 years female


Over 50 female






Non-haeme sources of Iron

Lentils - come in several varieties, green, red, and brown, all of which have different best uses in cooking and are an excellent source of iron.

Chickpeas – Very tasty as hummus; add to salads, mix into soups and pasta dishes, or roast to make them a crispy snack.

Edamame – these are immature soybeans, mainly available pre-shelled in the frozen vegetable section of your local supermarket. A great addition to stir-fries and bowls, blended into edamame hummus, or as a snack. (Note: Some edamame is made from genetically engineered soybeans. If GMOs aren’t your thing, look for organic or non-GMO certification.)

Tofu - also known as soybean curd, tofu is made by coagulating soy milk and pressing it into cubes, soft and silky or firm enough to hold its shape. Flavoured to suit your taste, it can be fried, baked, or crumbled into a breakfast scramble, sliced into sandwiches, or tossed into soups and pastas. (Note: As with all soy foods, we recommend getting organic if you can to avoid genetically engineered soybeans.)

Cashews - a great base for homemade dairy-free cheese and pasta sauces, added to smoothies, or blended into cashew butter.

Pepitas - otherwise known as pumpkin seeds. Add to smoothies, mix into yogurt or oatmeal, toss into a salad or eat as a tasty snack. Sunflower and sesame seeds also contain iron.

Dark Leafy Greens - these contain a lot of non-haeme iron, but some greens — including spinach, Swiss chard, and beet greens — also contain high amounts of compounds called oxalic acid (or oxalates). However, boiling or steaming the greens has been found to reduce the oxalates by up to 90% depending on the vegetable.

Other foods which contain iron are grains such as oatmeal, wholegrain breads and iron-fortified breakfast cereals; beans and peas, pumpkin and sweet potatoes; free range eggs and other nuts e.g. walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds, and dried fruits such as apricots, prunes, raisins and sultanas.






1 cup


Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans)

½ cup, canned

5.4 mg


½ cup, whole



2 oz



¼ cup


Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

10 seeds


Swiss chard

1 cup (boiled)

4 mg


1 cup (boiled)


Kale, chopped

1 cup


Assisting absorption: To help your body absorb the iron from plants, make sure you incorporate vitamin C-rich foods in your meals, e.g. lemons, limes, oranges (one orange has around 70mg of vitamin C), kiwifruit, blueberries, tomatoes, red bell peppers, and broccoli (one cup of broccoli has about 80mg of vitamin C). It has also been found that vitamin A and Beta-carotene assist with the absorption of iron, so include carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter squash in your meals.

Allium Vegetables – These have been shown to help promote the bioavailability of iron (and zinc, too), so you can also add garlic, onions, chives, shallots, scallions and leeks to your meal to boost the amount of iron your body absorbs.

Note there are some foods which reduce iron absorption: The tannin in tea, coffee and red wine binds to the iron in foods and reduces the amount your body can absorb. So if your iron levels are low, avoid having these with your meal, wait until at least one hour afterwards.

Some research has also found that iron absorption is reduced by 50% to 60% when a person ingests 165 mg of calcium from dairy products6. (For reference, one-quarter cup of mozzarella cheese contains 198 mg of calcium.)

So, as is recommended by nutritionists, eat a rainbow – plenty of fruit and vegetables throughout every day and lots of variety in your meals during each week.

If you’d like to read the full article (which is much longer) it is available at https://foodrevolution.org/blog/iron-rich-foods/

1. Ocean Robbins’ grandfather started Baskin-Robbins [an American multinational company founded in 1945] and groomed his dad [John Robbins] to one day succeed him. But John walked away from the company and any access to his family’s ice cream fortune. He followed his own “rocky road” and devoted his life to advocating for health, compassion, and sustainability and for many decades has been challenging some of the most powerful industries in the world, and inspiring millions of people to look at their food and life choices as an opportunity to get empowered and make a difference. John’s son, Ocean, is now the CEO of the Food Revolution Network, and is fully involved with his father’s work of informing and educating people about the importance of a healthy plant-based diet.


3. https://www.nomeatathlete.com/iron-for-vegetarians/

4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25084991/

5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24401818/

6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.go...