Iron-deficiency anemia and plant-based eating

  • Iron-deficiency anemia affects more women than men.
  • Causes of iron-deficiency anemia and how it’s diagnosed.
  • How to build up iron on a plant-based diet.


If you’re a woman of child-bearing age and you’re dealing with fatigue, dizziness, headaches and strange cravings for ice, your body is trying to tell you something. You may have iron-deficiency anemia.

Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all the cells in the body. When you don’t have enough iron, it can make you sluggish, irritable and unfocused. This lack of iron causes anemia, otherwise known as iron-deficiency anemia.

Just as with migraines, iron-deficiency anemia affects more women than men. Women who are pregnant or have heavy periods have the highest risk of iron-deficiency anemia.

Symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia and how it’s diagnosed

Iron-deficiency anemia develops slowly — your symptoms could be mild, or you may not even have any. But when the anemia gets worse, fatigue and weakness may appear. These are the most common symptoms. One or more of these other signs may also appear:  

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Low body temperature
  • Pale or sallow (yellowish) skin
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath or chest pain, especially when you’re physically active
  • Brittle nails
  • Pica, which is unusual cravings for ice or icy drinks, or nonfood items like paper 

If you’re concerned, talk with your doctor. He or she may take these steps to diagnose the problem:

Check your health history. Your doctor might ask you about:

  • Your periods and how regular or heavy they are
  • Any digestive problems you may have, such as blood in your stool
  • What foods you’re eating
  • What medicines you’re taking
  • Your family health history

Give you a physical exam.

Do blood tests. You’ll have a complete blood count (CBC), which measures many parts of your blood. If the test shows that you have anemia, you’ll likely have another blood test. This one will measure the iron levels in your blood to make sure you have iron-deficiency anemia.  

If you’re diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor may do other tests to find out what’s causing it.

If you’re diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor may do other tests to find out what’s causing it.

Causes of iron-deficiency anemia 

You might have low iron levels for several reasons, including:

  • Bleeding. It can cause you to lose more blood cells and iron than your body can replace. You may bleed because of:
  • Digestive problems
    • Long-term use of aspirin
    • Donating blood too often 
    • Heavy or lengthy periods
    • Uterine fibroids
  • Pregnancy. When you’re pregnant, your body needs more iron than usual to support your growing baby.
  • Problems absorbing iron. With certain health problems such as celiac disease or Crohn's disease, it may be harder for your body to absorb iron from food. Gastric bypass surgery for weight loss is another reason your body may struggle to absorb iron from food. 

The top cause for low iron is not having enough iron in your diet. Since your body doesn’t produce iron on its own, you have to get what you need from what you eat. That means iron-rich foods need to be on the menu regularly. 

Why diet is so vital for avoiding iron-deficiency anemia

Someone once said, “Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.” While that’s a humorous take on why some people are lifelong carnivores, it doesn’t speak for the vegetarians who choose not to eat meat. 

Your body absorbs the iron in animal-based foods, such as meat, chicken, and fish, much better than the iron in plant-based foods — two to three times better. 

So, when it comes to iron intake, what’s a vegetarian (or vegan) to do to?

Variety is one of the answers to that question. Vegetarians should eat a range of iron sources to meet the daily requirements and avoid iron-deficiency anemia. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, those sources include:

  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
  • Soybeans
  • Some dark leafy greens including spinach and chard
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Eggs

You’ll be doing yourself a big favor by eating a good source of vitamin C while you’re eating the rest of your meal. The vitamin helps your body absorb iron. It’s found in citrus fruits, tomatoes and peppers. 

Try these suggestions for a day’s worth of healthy vegetarian meals that include iron and Vitamin C.

  • Breakfast: Try a parfait of low-fat yogurt with layers of strawberries (high in vitamin C) and crunchy, iron-fortified cereal. 
  • Lunch: Enjoy a lentil burger with sautéed mushrooms and tomato on a whole-grain bun.
  • Dinner: Stir fry tofu and vegetables with brown rice.

Along with the iron-rich foods you eat, your doctor may suggest that you take a multivitamin for women that includes iron. Or you may need to take an iron-only supplement. The important thing is to do this under a doctor’s care. If you take too much iron, it could lead to an iron overload that can damage organs.

More iron (in the right amounts) can mean more energy 

In just a few months, you should be getting your iron levels back to normal, which should cut down or eliminate any symptoms you were having. When your energy is back, you’ll feel more like your old self.


Find a doctor

If you have symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia, find a Providence doctor to help diagnose your condition. Search in our provider directory for a primary care doctor.






Are you a vegetarian? How do you add iron to your diet to prevent iron-deficiency anemia? Share it @Providence. #anemia

Related resources

Being an iron woman could lead to iron deficiency

Keep your digestive tract happy with a colon-friendly diet

MedlinePlus: Celiac Disease

How to go vegan without sacrificing your nutritional health

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Deliciously simple vegetarian recipes

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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