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Iron, Anemia, and Vegetarian Diets

A few readers have left comments on the post or sent emails asking about how to get enough iron, B12, etc. on a vegan diet. The truth is, it’s not hard at all! Here was my answer to one of the emails:

In terms of getting good bloodwork results, the most important thing you need to be sure you’re doing is eating enough calories. A few years back, when I first started running, I didn’t realize how much I needed as a runner, and I ended up undernourished (I won’t bore you with details here, but I wrote about it in my Hello from CCK post).

My protein levels were low, and I was borderline anemic. But that all corrected itself when I realized I needed to eat more for my activity level. Initially when I went vegan, I made sure I had enough sources of B12. It was pretty easy: B12 was in Luna Bars, my soymilk, nutritional yeast, etc. But a few years ago, I noticed that since I’d switched to unfortified almond milk and wasn’t eating much nut yeast or many Luna Bars anymore, I needed to be more careful about getting enough B12. It’s really easy to see if you’re deficient in B12: Just look at the labels on the stuff you’re eating and add it up. If it’s not over 100%, you need to find more sources of B12 to add to your diet. Except for minute amounts in plants (not enough to count), B12 in a vegan diet is only found in fortified foods. Look for cereals, Wild Bars (my favorite hehe), fortified milks, Luna Bars, some protein powders, Red Star nutritional yeast (a great source of B12), etc. Then make sure you’re getting 100% every day (or more than 100% on some days; it stays in your system for a long while, so you can go overboard on some days and thus have to eat much, much less than 100% on other days). In my case, I’ve added nut yeast back to my diet. Along with the Wild Bars, my protein powder, and kombucha, I’m good to go.

As for iron, if you google “iron and vegetarianism” you’ll get loads of information. My iron levels came back fine, so I don’t really worry about it, but I know that iron is better absorbed when you eat it at a meal where foods rich in Vitamin C are present. Also, leafy greens are a great source of both Vitamin C and iron. But less iron is absorbed with calcium-rich foods, so if you’re taking a calcium supplement, you should take it at the meal where you’re eating the least amount of iron. Fortified foods are good sources of iron, as are beans, blackstrap molasses, some sea veggies (dulse is very high in it), some nuts, greens, etc.

All in all, if you eat a variety of foods–emphasizing whole foods, especially veggies and fruits–and take in enough calories to meet your energy needs, you shouldn’t have to worry much about specific vitamins. If you’re really curious, you can always sign up for a free account on and and log your daily eats once in a while. Or, if you’re worried that you are deficient in something, see a doctor for a blood test. One reference that helped me tremendously when I first became a vegetarian is a book called The Vegetarian Way.  It has chapters on specific nutrients, as well as chapters on vegetarian athletes, teenagers, how to first “go” veg, how to eat out as a vegetarian, prepare veg foods on a budget, and more.  It really is a great book to look into buying.

I do now take a vegan Omega-3 supplement, made by Minami Nutrition. It’s not that one can’t get enough Omega-3s on a vegan diet, but I just want to be sure and not have to worry about it.

Nail art of the day: I renamed the shade “Ipod blue.” When I went to pick up my ipod, I noticed my nails blended right in. (Please excuse the dirty ipod; he’s been around the block… and then some!)


It’s no Watermelon Manicure … but I had fun using my new nail-art pen.

Published on April 9, 2010

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  1. Valerie says

    Cute nail art! And wow you really know your stuff. This was so well-written. Not that I should be surprised, since EVERYTHING you write is a joy to read :).

  2. abby says

    thanks katie! i was one of the ones who asked about iron, since i think i’m anemic maybe. i’ll look for tht book and also maybe see my doctor too. thanks girl!

  3. McKella says

    I’m kinda jealous of those nails. I have the crappiest, weakest nails in the world! Thanks for the nutrition tips; I’m still getting the hang of this on my mostly-plants lifestyle, and this was a big help!

  4. Sarahishealthy says

    Woah girl, how do you draw HEARTS on your nails?! That takes skill! I can’t even paint regular polish without getting it all over my fingers. LOL!

  5. Keri - IEatTrees says

    Great post- lots of information! I don’t take supplements, but we make sure to get plenty of what we need through food. I use Nutritional Yeast for B12, but I’ve noticed a lot of foods are also fortified with it.

    BTW, I’m picking up chopsticks tonight when we go to Whole Foods (I bet they have them, right?). So excited! 🙂

  6. eatandrun says

    I’m not a vegetarian, but I still really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for taking the time to write such an informative piece. And thanks for being so honest about your own personal story.

  7. Evan Thomas says

    The only supplement I take is food, plain and simple. Unfortunately, I know certain things like Omega-3 start lacking during the school year because I lose access to fish. Overall, however, I say I’m satisfied at that

  8. Jessica (PB & Jess) says

    Ohhhh, pretty nails. Love that blue! I got a pedicure earlier this week and my toenails are now bright orange, hehe. Too bad I don’t have any cute hearts or swirls on mine! 🙂

    The only supplement I take is calcium. I eat a piece of Adora dark chocolate every day, which amounts to an extra 500 mg.

  9. Bianca- Vegan Crunk says

    I’ve never had my bloodwork checked, but I’m always afraid I’ve got low iron. I’m always cold. But that could be a sign of something else, I suppose. I take a B vitamin supplement and calcium daily, and I get monthly B-12 shots at work…so I’m pretty sure I’m alright in that area.

    I used to get these awful cracks in the corners of my mouth, which I read on WedMD (hey, not the most reliable doctor, but it’s a start) that could be sign of a B vitamin deficiency. I started the supplements and shots and haven’t had the problem since.

  10. Kara says

    Thanks Katie! This was a great email. You’re so sweet to your readers. I learned a lot. I actually didn’t know that nutritional yeast had vitamins. I thought vegetarians only used it because it tasted like cheese!

  11. Mary says

    I don’t take any supplements, save for a multivitamin. Like you, I think eating a balanced diet and getting the nutrients from food is more important.

  12. Marina says

    I think I am deficient in some of those nutrients, because, although I’m not a vegeterian, I don’t eat meat pretty often, and when I do, it’s not very a lot, and I’ve noticed some deficiency signs, like cracked lips, paleness, dry hair and skin…
    I’m trying to get it all better though 🙂

  13. ilanalala says

    oh gosh i love you. i’m MIA from blogs for two weeks, I pop by my fave chocolate covered gal, and here you are with my FAVORITE meal and my FAVORITE nail color. Spaghetti squash, bsproutss, toast and jam all on a plate … I always think I’m crazy when I make something like that but apparently I ain’t!! and blue nails are pretty much the best thing ever…i think blue is like the perfect nail color. yup.
    Also, thanks for the info! Anemia runs in my family…I plan to be tested at my next physical, but I try to eat a lot a lot of dark leafies so I hope it’s doing SOME good. I don’t take vitamins or supplements because, honestly, I don’t know so much about vitamins and the nutrient breakdown in my diet so I’m not quite sure what I’m missing (yet). One of these days I’ll get there.

  14. jaclyn@todayslady says

    Such cute nails!!!!

    I’ve never ever had any problems with my bloodwork, even when I was vegan. I didn’t even think about getting enough of certain vitamins. I think that I naturally eat a wide variety of healthy foods.

  15. Babette says

    I really enjoyed reading that post. I personally don’t take any supplement, but about once a year I buy a bottle of Floravit, a natural and easy to absorb source of iron. Everytime I have my iron checked, it is near the limit, but still over it.

    I just have to eat more green vegetables! (with lemon or tomatoes to help absorption).

    I’m looking forward to your post on nutritional yeast. I love that stuff!

  16. Danielle says

    I totally agree- there’s only 2 things you really have to think about if you’re trying to get all your nutrients:
    1. Eating enough
    2. Variety
    …and that’s really it! Of course there’s B12 which I take a supplement for…but usually people worry about calcium & iron.

    p.s. I want my nails to be ipod blue! Or..laptop black?

  17. theprocessofhealing says

    That is awesome advice, you know your stuff girl!!! I think you can get all the nutrition that you need in a vegan/vegetarian diet. I can’t tell you how many times i get the whole “but do you get enough protein” question. But I’ve added up my protein several days and I find that I get plenty, and sometimes above the recommended amount, most days.

  18. Vegantvpresenter says

    I take sublingual B12 from HealthyDirect and it definitely makes a great deal of difference to me-but it was surprising to me how long it took to find a source of B12 vitamin that was vegan-especially considering the market it’s surely aimed at??

    My energy levels went way up and my pms symptoms and pain just disappeared when I added a spoonful of blackstrap molasses a day to my diet, I’d really recommend it. I also take a vitamin D (again vegan how hard was that?!) cos I live in not-so-sunny England…all of these things seem to suit my needs…

  19. Katharina says

    I love this post! You have such a refreshing way of presenting knowledge like this. It’s very enlightening and friendly.. not like you’re forcing anyone to do something. Sometime I feel like those “helpful” articles are pointing the finger at people rather than trying to be nice lol. But seriously, when are you not sweet? 🙂


    p.s. those nails are faaaabulous!

  20. BroccoliHut says

    I have a history of anemia too–I’ve just packed in the beans and tofu ever since. I don’t take any vitamins, however.

  21. Katie says

    I’ve had my blood tested a couple times for vitamin levels and have never been much off the normal range. I still take a multi and calcium and omega-3, just to cover any gaps. No research to support it either way really, so I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry!

  22. Adam says

    Such a great, informative post for people considering vegetarianism or transitioning to a vegan lifestyle. Unfortunately i am all too familiar with the “undernourishment” that results from not eating enough calories for what you are burning. I completely depleted my iron stores and had extremely low levels of the main B vitamins. My white blood cell count was down as well as i had been on antibiotics (never again) for a food poisoning incident when i was hiking in South America. I think all of this info is essential, as i never shifted away from my vegetarian lifestyle and completely built back all of my iron and b-vitamin stores without supplementation or animal products. Spinach or Dulse paired with citrus fruit works wonders. I am living proof that you anyone can completely renew there energy and come out of anemia even livelier and stronger then before through a plant-based diet! Thanks for the great post:)

  23. Kate says

    In case no one mentioned it – cooking in cast iron is a great way to boost your iron w/o meat too…especially cooking tomato sauces! I am not 100 % veg anymore (but am considering going back to vegan) but eat very few animal products…same with the rest of the family…so when we make marinara sauce for on top of pasta or veggies…I cook it in the cast iron skillet. I do veggie stir fry’s in there too.

  24. Michal says

    Excellent post, and very important! I am planning on doing a post about the same thing in a week or so. 🙂

    Your nails look awesome! I wish my nails could look as cool as your do. Do you do them yourself? That must take a loooong time. I dont even have the patience to paint my toes.

    I do take supplements, I take a daily B12 and a vitamin C but thats it. I have been thinking about taking an everyday multi just to be on the safe side, but i only thought of that yesterday.

  25. maggie says

    Just got my blood work done last week and they said everything was excellent…but I still feel like I’m running really low on energy..maybe my calories need to increase? Hmm. Thanks for this post love!

    And by the way THANKS for guest posting!!! I love you,

  26. Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) says

    just catching up on my reader 🙂 but you’re tackling iron, good. This week I tackled Protein and Last week was Calcium. So keep on spreadin the good word that plant based diets work and one can be healthy & vibrant on one!! xoxo

  27. radioactivegan says

    I do take supplements. I’m a small person (i’m reaching up to 5’2″ here …) and I don’t get in nearly enough physical activity, so I just don’t eat a lot. And even though I try to eat a huge variety of things, the bulk just isn’t there. I find that well selected vitamins make it a lot easier for me to not worry about how much I’ve eaten all day.

  28. Alexis {Diva on a Diet} says

    I know this is an old post, but I was googling unfortified almond milk and there you were! Can I ask where you found or still find that? I’m trying to find a way to work my non-dairy morning smoothies back into my routine, but I take thyroid medication in the morning, and I’m not supposed to have calcium within 4 hours of taking it. And I can only find enriched almond milk! If you could email me that would be great, as I’m not sure I’ll keep up with this post! Thanks!!!

  29. harriet says

    Another great book, especially for teens like me going vegetarian, I found that the book ‘Smart Girl’s Guide to going Vegetarian’, by Rachel Meltzer Warren, was a great book, that had heaps of info on nutrients, social situations, recipes and more.

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