Plant-based Iron-Rich Foods: Top 12 Sources + Infographic
Hi Sweet Friends,
I’m often asked if I get enough iron through my plant-based diet. The short answer is heck yeah! But the longer answer, which breaks down why iron is important, where to get it, and what to do if you’re deficient is a bit more complex. That’s why I teamed up with Crazy Sexy RD, Jen Reilly for this blog post. We’ve broken things down so that plant-powered readers can feel confident about meeting their iron needs.
First, let’s talk about the basics. What’s iron?
So glad you asked! Iron is an essential mineral–a metal to be exact–and its main job is to carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. Iron is also part of the enzymes that are essential for tip-top digestion and overall body health. Without enough iron, red blood cells are fewer and smaller, which means they’re not transporting sufficient O2 where it needs to go. When this happens, your organs and tissues can’t work as well as they should (keep reading for more on that!).
What happens when you don’t get enough iron in your diet?
Anemia (aka iron deficiency) is actually the most common nutritional deficiency in the US. It can lead to delayed motor and mental functioning in infants, small or preterm babies for pregnant women, and fatigue, lightheadedness, headaches, grumpiness, inability to concentrate, and impaired mental clarity in adults and teens.
If you suspect that you may be iron deficient, make an appointment with your doc. He or she will probably look for signs of anemia such as pale skin, irregular heartbeat, rapid breathing, and do an exam to check for internal bleeding. But, most commonly, iron deficiency is found by doing a blood test that tests for hemoglobin and hematocrit levels.
How to eat an iron-rich plant-based diet
Still worried that you won’t get enough iron with plant foods? Studies show that vegans consume as much iron as omnivores, and sometimes more. In fact, foods with vitamin C boost iron absorption big time (we’ll get to that in a jiffy!). First, let’s boost your iron-rich plant know-how with my helpful infographic:
View a printable PDF of the infographic here.
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Sample Day of Iron for a Menstruating 40 year-old Woman (needs 18 mg iron)
- Breakfast: ⅓ cup rolled oats (1.2 mg) cooked with 1.5 oz raisins (1 small box, 0.8 mg iron) = 2 mg iron
- Snack: 8 ounces green juice
- Lunch: Lentil Spinach Soup (1 cup lentils [6.6 mg ] + ½ cup cooked spinach [3.2 mg]) with bell pepper salad = 9.8 mg iron
- Snack: Veggies and rice crackers with tahini dip (made with 1 oz sesame seeds) = 4.2 mg iron
- Dinner: 1 cup sautéed Swiss Chard (2 mg) over 1 cup cooked quinoa (2.8 mg) with lemon = 4.8 mg iron
TOTAL: 20.8 mg iron
What if you’re eating enough iron-rich foods and you’re still anemic?
It’s possible to eat lots of iron-rich plant foods (or animal-based foods) and still be anemic. Often this is because of a weakened digestive system due to celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or other conditions that cause insufficient stomach acid. In these cases, 25-50 mg of daily iron supplementation may be recommended (swig that supplement down with some vitamin C-rich green juice!) until iron levels hit the recommended range. Always check with your doc for specific recommendations.
Do you need to eat animal protein to meet your iron needs?
Nope! But I like to give you guys the full scoop, so let’s clarify a few things. There are basically two kinds of iron:
- Heme iron: Found in meats, fish, and poultry. This type of iron is in foods that contain hemoglobin. The body absorbs 7-35 percent of heme iron.
- Non-heme iron: Found in plant foods. The body absorbs 2-20% of non-heme iron. The percentage is lower because non-heme iron is more sensitive to other dietary factors that may limit its absorption (more on how to avoid that in the next section).
It’s worth mentioning that while meat protein nearly doubles the absorption of non-heme iron, vitamin C is even more effective in increasing absorption and doesn’t have the associated risk of increasing heart disease risk like the heme iron only found in meat (meta-analysis here). The good news is, iron needs can be met completely with non-heme iron. It’s just important to pay attention to the factors that may affect absorption especially if someone is iron deficient.
Plant foods that boost and plant foods that block iron absorption
Iron Booster Superstar: Vitamin C!
The absorption of non-heme iron found in plant foods can be enhanced when those foods are eaten with vitamin C-rich good guys like papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, pineapple, citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, strawberries), and cauliflower. Vitamin C is an acid (ascorbic to be exact), and acids increase the bioavailability of the iron. One research study showed that by adding just 63 milligrams of vitamin C (the amount in ½ of a bell pepper or 1 small navel orange) to a meal, iron absorption from plant foods tripled. Bottom line: Add them to our plate with some iron-rich foods on a daily basis!
On the flip side, absorption of iron-rich plant foods can be decreased when certain foods are part of the meal. But, keep in mind that unless you’re genuinely iron deficient and needing to maximize iron absorption at every turn, these foods and supplements in your diet shouldn’t make a big impact on your iron status.
- Tannins found in tea leaves, red grapes, chocolate, and coffee block the absorption of iron by about 50% (study here). But, consuming these foods an hour before or an hour after the iron-rich meal has no effect on iron absorption.
- Phytates are important antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents found in highest quantities in wheat bran, soybeans, pinto beans, kidney beans, navy beans, and peanuts. Phytates bind to non-heme iron and lower its absorption. But soaking, fermenting, sprouting, and cooking all reduce phytate content by 50-75%. So, the chance of phytates truly affecting iron status is pretty slim, especially since most plant foods contain some iron and only a few raw plant foods contain notable levels of phytates.
- Egg Protein (both the yolk and the white)
- Calcium Supplements and Dairy Foods compete with iron for uptake in your intestinal tract
- Zinc and Manganese supplements
- Peppermint and Chamomile
- Antacids decrease iron absorption because they reduce stomach acid
Iron comes up a lot when you’re talking about a plant-based diet, but I know there are a lot of other questions flying around out there. What curiosities pop up in your conversations about eating a plant-empowered diet (even if you’re not 100% vegan)?
Peace & Popeye,