It’s a common misconception that vegetarians and vegans, since they do not consume meat, are unable to get enough iron in their diets to safely donate blood. Well, we are here to give you the facts! While some vegans and vegetarians may have to watch their diet more closely, it is completely possible and normal to get enough iron and donate blood on these diets!
The root of this misconception seems to stem from a misunderstanding about different types of iron that people can get from food. Heme iron, which is found in animal products (mostly meat), is more easily absorbed by the body. However, non-heme iron, which is found in plants, is still a viable option to meet your body’s needs. As long as you consume enough iron, your donation experience should be no different than an omnivore’s!
Here are some tips on how to keep your iron levels high enough to donate blood on a vegan or vegetarian diet:
Why Iron Is Important
Iron, a mineral found in foods that we consume, combines with certain proteins to make hemoglobin in your red blood cells. The red blood cells, in turn, carry oxygen throughout your body. So it’s important when donating blood that you have a high enough iron level to ensure that your body has the number of red cells it needs to carry enough oxygen through your body.
Types of Iron (Heme vs. Non-Heme)
Iron deficiency anemia (too little iron), is a common problem. The diet of a vegan or vegetarian blood donor can make it difficult to keep your iron levels high – but contrary to popular belief, this is because of the type of iron consumed, not simply the amount.
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is contained in animal products, while vegan diets contain only non-heme iron. Heme iron is absorbed more easily into the body, whereas non-heme iron is not as efficiently absorbed. But don’t worry, if you choose to stay away from animal products, it is still possible to keep a high enough iron level to donate blood. You just need to be sure to consume plenty of foods rich with non-heme iron, as well as foods that will help your body absorb it.
Foods with Non-Heme Iron
Plenty of plant-based foods are rich with iron, but here are some examples with the highest amount of iron per serving:
- Whole wheat breads, cereals, and pastas
- Cream of Wheat
- Bran flakes
- Cooked spinach
- Cooked mushrooms
- Baked potato
Food That Help You Absorb Iron
Eating foods with high levels of vitamin C will help increase your body’s ability to absorb iron. Some of these foods include:
- Citrus fruits
- Red or green bell pepper
- Grapefruit juice
You may also consider taking an iron supplement in addition to your dietary iron intake.
Foods that Hinder Iron Absorption
Some foods can actually hinder your body’s ability to absorb iron as well. Here are some examples of foods you might want to avoid:
- Tea (even decaffeinated)
- Dairy products
- Foods high in dietary fiber
- Calcium supplements
Now that we’ve “ironed” out the kinks, you can make an appointment to donate blood! Visit sbcdonor.org or give us a call at 650-723-7831 to schedule an appointment.
Please note, there may be more current information available related to iron and blood donation. Visit our Iron and Blood Donation page for more.