Plant-based Iron Guide

Plant-based Iron-Rich Foods: Top 12 Sources + Infographic

June 17, 2014|60Comments|


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:

Kris Carr's Plant-based Iron InfographicView a printable PDF of the infographic here.

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!

Iron Blockers

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,

Kris Carr



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60 responses to Plant-based Iron-Rich Foods: Top 12 Sources + Infographic
  1. SO appreciate your info graphics…to help us be intelligent plant based people and to be able to share our knowledge with those curious meat eaters..that want to be more plant based. The questions they ask, oh my. Thank you Kris Carr.

  2. Thanks for this, Kris. I’m anemic and this info is really helpful!

  3. I have been eating a fully raw fruits & vegetables only diet for several weeks and feel better than I have in 20 years – chronic stomach pain is GONE! Can you recommend raw fruits & veggies that are high in iron?

    Thanks so much! Love you and your work – you’re a true inspiration! :)

    • Hi Alisa,

      So glad you’re feeling better! To meet your iron needs, dark leafy greens, especially raw spinach are going to be your best bet. A 10-ounce package of spinach has 7.7 mg iron, which will make a big dent in your 18-mg goal. If you’re juicing, add iron-rich parsley to your concoctions. You may also consider adding raw sesame seeds and raw pumpkin seeds to your diet. Not only are they high in iron, but they also have essential protein (more protein info here: http://kriscarr.com/blog-video/my-crazy-sexy-guide-to-plant-based-protein/) and calcium (http://kriscarr.com/blog-video/dairy-free-diet-recipes/). If you have trouble adding these foods, consider supplements for iron and calcium.

      xo, kc

      • I’ve heard that adding lemon to foods like spinach will help release more of the iron into you. Adding lemon to everything makes it taste better I think so I always do, but just wanted to double check.

  4. I’m a nursing mother and my son’s pediatrician was concerned how I was getting enough healthy fats without eating dairy. She suggested I feed him cow’s milk and cottage cheese to introduce him to food. ???

  5. It comes up quite often that people think they have to make a choice between eating meat and being “plant-empowered”. Most (if not all) traditional cultures that consumed meat were also plant-empowered. Not all people do well without animal products in their diet, and if they eat responsible meats (grass-fed and pastured), the research is clear that there is no increase risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. It’s important that we don’t continue to perpetuate the myth that all meat has the same effect on the body or that you can’t prevent cancer and even put it into remission with a diet that includes some brilliantly health-supporting animal foods. Some people can get by as vegetarians. Many cannot. Alexandra Jamieson (a well-known and respected ex-vegan) is a great spokesperson for this – respect your unique body, do what’s best for your body and be open to what it might need. It’s different for everyone.

  6. Thanks Kris! I often donate blood and platelets and am frequently just squeaking by the iron test. Last time I failed — so this is great info to help me get my iron back up without overloading on red meat!

  7. Zoe said on June 17, 2014

    Hey Kris! The question I always get asked as a vegan is “How do you get enough protein?”. It drives me crazy that people are SO worried about protein, yet they don’t worry about the fact that they might not be getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals from their diets that lack a lot of plant foods!

  8. Will raw spinach offer the same Iron amount…or does it have to be cooked? I’d rather eat it raw in my salads and green drinks.

  9. I love your blog, but wanted to post about this issue. Some of us, mostly of northern European descent and often “women of a certain age”, can be getting too MUCH iron. Many things are iron fortified, generally things we shouldn’t be eating anyway for the most part. Some of this is a hereditary predisposition, but also food choices, supplements, menopause and environmental issues can also be in play. It is good to know if you are storing iron as too much in the system can be a factor in heart disease, diabetes and liver conditions. It is an easy fix if there is too much iron in the system, most MDs will prescribe phlebotomy – but I am not so good with needles and discovered a gentle chelation with IP6.
    Having enough iron is one issue, too much another.
    Keep smiling Kris, you are amazing and inspiring…even for those of us that eat a little meat now and again!

    • Hi Katherine,

      Avoiding meat and its highly absorbable heme iron is one of the best ways to prevent getting too much iron. Fortified foods have non-heme iron added. Eating lots of raw foods will help you keep your iron intake down. But, you could always have a blood test done to see where you are.

      xo,
      Kris

  10. Thank you so much. I am newly vegan and I have been diagnosed with anemia for as long as I can remember. It is good to know this so that I can make the adjustments and get my iron levels up! Thanks so much it came right on time!!!

  11. What about raw spinach? If I eat raw spinach will that provide me with iron. Same question for Swiss chard. I noticed in your chart it says cooked for. Oth so I was just curious is there’s a difference in the amount to iron the body gets, cooked versus raw?

    Thanks
    Genevieve

    • Hi Genevieve,

      Raw spinach and raw Swiss chard are also good iron sources. Here’s the info for raw spinach: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/3214, and here’s the info for raw Swiss chard: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2965. While they are less concentrated sources, if you were to juice a whole bunch of raw spinach, for example, you’d get 9.2 mg of iron.

      Cooked foods are more concentrated sources of some nutrients because cooking shrinks the foods. So, it may be easier to eat 1 cup of cooked spinach (3.2 mg iron) than it would be to eat 4 cups of raw spinach to get the same amount of iron. Up to you though!

      xo, Kris

  12. Informative and empowering, thanks for putting together this important information in such a digestible format. A great tool for the conversations I have with people interested in going plant-based and have questions.

  13. Please guest on my radio show when you come to Tampa, Fl. The Hawk Health Hour Wednesdays Noon-1pm http://www.hawkradio.com Listen to June 11th archived show.

    Thank you for your good ( God) Work!

  14. Can chlorophyll supplement help thanks

    • Hi Connie,

      Because chlorophyll is a natural blood builder and is very similar to hemoglobin, it may help boosts iron levels eventhough it contains no iron. While I’ve seen no research to prove this, chlorophyll certainly won’t hurt iron levels and may even help.

      xo, kc

  15. Hi Kris,
    I just wanted to add that sometimes people can be anaemic despite good iron levels if they are hypothyroid as the lower body temperature associated with hypothyroidism interferes with red blood cell production. Great post, so useful, thanks. I’m shy online so excuse the lack of name.

  16. I love this information! After a serious workplace injury 4 years ago at only 24, I have been searching for anything out there to ease my chronic pain that wasn’t simply narcotic drugs. Going vegan has been absolutely essential to my overall decrease in pain. Information like this, in bite size portions; is the perfect way to gain new information without becoming overwhelmed. Thanks!

  17. This is a great article, loaded with lots of important information that makes me better equipped to respond to naysayers about my plant based diet. It also reinforces that my vegan diet keeps me strong and healthy. The info graphics are very helpful. I feel smarter on this subject. Thank you!

  18. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I have metastatic stage 4 breast cancer. My hemoglobin is low right now. I am trying to increase it without any more meds other than a multi vitamin.

  19. So thorough!! Thank you so much!

  20. Thank you for putting together a fantastic, fun to read and most importantly, easy to understand guide. I try to steer clear of vitamin supplements in favour of real foods to get what I need. I did not realise that quinoa was a good source of iron or even my tahini.

  21. Fantastic info, would be good to get more breakdown of more iron foods like sprouts and other raw foods. For those thinking about taking iron supplements beware they can make you constipated. Keep chewing pumpkin seeds with some juice or you can use camu camu powder for high Vit. C.
    I would like to see similar article about protein, always the first thing people keep telling me to have more of even the naturopaths.

  22. L said on June 18, 2014

    Peace and Popeye… Haha you’re so funny AND smart Kris!

  23. Will you please comment on the availability (absorption ability) and the amount of the iron in foods such as spirulna, wheat grass, activated barley, barley juice, and cracked cell chlorella? These are easy additions to smoothies. Thank you

    • Hi Leslie,

      The iron in sea vegetables is typically in a highly absorbable form. However, since these supplements aren’t regulated, it’s too hard to say exact iron amounts as they range from 1/2 mg to 35 mg per tablespoon. The USDA nutrient database has dried spirulina at 2 mg iron per tablespoon, but doesn’t contain values for the other foods. Keep in mind that all the sea veggies and other greens are still fantastic immune-boosters and detoxifiers, and adding them to smoothies may also help boost iron levels. xo, kc

  24. Dear Kris, After being a vegetarian for over ten years and at the same time an avid long-distance runner I suffered from severe muscle weakness due to anemia and low protein in my diet. I could not run half a mile without severe burning pain in my left calf and no doctro could give me a concrete diagnosis except for overuse. Only after visiting a sports nutritionist and getting blood work from my doctor did we see that I was severely anemic (my ferritin levels were at 6, when the normal range is 36 and on).
    Rather than eating processed and synthetic protein foods, like the sports nutritionist suggested, I decided to go back to eating organic meat, first only chicken and wild-caught fish (esp. salmon), but after continuing to feel very tired I decided to introduce organiz bison meat to my diet.
    I eventually had to stop running altogether (last February) because it was still very painful and I didn’t see the point in suffering through what used to make me very happy at one point.
    But I did notice that the only time when I do not feel as tired is when I eat red meat (a bison patty) after a strenuous workout, like spinning, which I do at least three times per week now.
    I read so much about nutrition and vegetarianism and veganism, and I still have a lot of issues (psychologically and humanely) with eating meat, but I find that it is the only solution to all the phyisical and nutritional issues I developed while consuming so few calories and protein for the amount of running I was doing over the course of months or even years, all unbeknownst to me.
    After a few months of my initial blood test showing the low levels of iron and protein, I was tested again and also tested for thyroid issues, but everything came out normal.
    Someone told me I just over did it all, too much running and too strict of a vegetarian diet, even though I was very aware of eating a wholesome and clean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, quinoa and sources of iron that I thought were enough for me.
    I guess I don’t have a real question for you, this was more of a comment about my experience. My question is directed more at the universe I guess: why did this happen? Will I ever be able to run pain-free again? Do I really HAVE to consume animal meat for my protein or why is it that it’s the only thing that makes me feel less tired?

    Thanks for always being so positive, honest and informative.
    xoxo
    Claudia

  25. Enjoying your article/recipes about including enough iron in diet. Thx!

    Your website is nicely designed and chock full of useful info which we ALL need today because of polluted/toxic atmosphere we live in. We must always remember, God is in charge. He will and IS providing ways for us to overcome and thrive in this world…… such as through your beautiful website. Thank you and God bless you.

  26. Thank you for this! My husband and I became vegetarians starting this month, and focused so much on how to get enough protein…until I started feeling fatigued the first week and a co-worker mentioned lack of iron could be the culprit. I am printing this out for reading material for us tonight. I love your blog! Thanks for being an inspiration to women and men alike.

  27. I am wondering what is best when your iron numbers are ok but your ferritin is low….what do you think of supplementing with FLOREDEX with iron?

  28. I have a question about the info in this article. You list soybeans, cooked, as a source of iron but then further down its listed as a phytate, which prevents the absorption of iron, only reducing this effect by half when cooked. This is confusing. Which is it? Thx:)

    • Hi Jayda,

      Non-heme iron in plant foods is absorbed at a rate of 2-20% which factors in things like phytates and other iron blockers. By soaking and cooking soybeans, phytate content decreases significantly. And then if you add a vitamin C-rich food to the meal, you boost that soybean iron absorption even more. Daily iron needs take into account that you’re not absorbing iron at 100%, so soybeans are still a great source. xo, kc

  29. Thanks, Kris! I’m learning so much from your emails and website as a newly initiated Vegan (6 weeks now, and feeling pretty great!) I can see now by reading your article that I’m getting enough Iron (though I should probably wait a little longer to drink my afternoon black tea after lunch), but one thing I keep reading about is the importance of Vitamin B12 for Vegans. How much B12 do I need as a 54 year old woman?

  30. My adult children have to much iron. I read that if you give blood it takes the extra iron out. What else can they do to bring down to much iron…it’s not good to have to much…Flower

  31. Hi Kris,
    Thank you for the informative article. As a diairy and gluten free vegetarian I get a lot of questions about the vitamins D and B12.
    I just had my blood work done and while my iron was fine (yes!), I’m seriously vitamin D and too low on vitamin B12. Sp i guess people ask the right questions! I’ve started to take good supplements, but I would love to know what I could add in my diet. I get as much sunlight as I can here in the Netherlands for the vit D, but is apparently not enough.
    I would love to see a post on this! Thank you!

  32. Thank you for the info regarding Iron. Anyway Kris I do have a question regarding juicing for a 3 years old. What will be the best ingredients to boost the immune system of a toddler. My daughters are twins. When they were about 1 yr and a half they both became sickly, I mean at the young age of 3, they just turned 3 last may 12. they were already hospitalized 12x. Now I have been doing green juice everyday and it seems to be very effective on their health. I used celery, parsley, broccoli leaves, spinach, cucumber, moringa herb, green apple, pineapple and avocado. I normally have this and I alternately using each one of them. Anymore advice to boost their immune system? Thank you- Jeffrey

  33. Thanks for the info. I always surprise the doctors with the perfect iron levels! They’re expecting me to be anemic every time I tell I’m a vegan haha :) Eating lots of greens and legumes ensures adequate intake.

  34. Hi sweet Kris, I thank God for you. I think our spirits are entwined. You have been a blessing for me. I am 57 years young and doing my darnest to stay fit and healthy. Getting older has its good and bad points. Things begin to chance and you are caught up in a whirlwind trying to figure out what is going on. The current issue i am addressing is menopause. You know I do not think the doctors know what they are talking about when it comes to female hormones. Kis I am currently having a bleeding issue. I was the women as well as many other dealing with post menopausal bleeding. I am taking about clotc. I have had a D&C and am still having problems. Thank you for your article on Iron and building your blood. I hemoglobin level is 10> I am miserable. I am tired and have difficulty excercising and have gained weight. I am normally a n active person, but not now. Please help me restore my health. Your friend in Christ, sweet debbie

    • Please excuse the error in spelling. I am at work and was trying to get this message out before being summoned. Debbie

  35. Thanks Kris for this great summary on plant-based iron sources – at the moment I’m losing a lot of my hair and have been doing research as to what could be causing that with my vegan diet. Iron is naturally one of the components that comes up and this summary has been perfect!! Love your blog.

  36. Too much IRON is what your body cannot process if you have hemochromatosis. I did not find out I had it until I was in my fifties. Estimated one-in-ten Americans are carriers of the defective genes that cause this hereditary condition. My only symptom was strange tiny red circles on the inside of my wrists. If taking iron causes pain, get your iron levels checked. The condition can damage your organs and cause premature death.

  37. Hemp hearts/hemp protein powder are also a very rich source :)

  38. Great article!

  39. Thank you so much. I am newly vegan and I have been diagnosed with anemia for as long as I can remember. It is good to know this so that I can make the adjustments and get my iron levels up! Thanks so much it came right on time!!!

  40. Hi Kris,
    Thank you for the informative article. As a diairy and gluten free vegetarian I get a lot of questions about the vitamins D and B12.
    I just had my blood work done and while my iron was fine (yes!), I’m seriously vitamin D and too low on vitamin B12. Sp i guess people ask the right questions! I’ve started to take good supplements, but I would love to know what I could add in my diet. I get as much sunlight as I can here in the Netherlands for the vit D, but is apparently not enough.
    I would love to see a post on this! Thank you!

  41. What about for those of us who have hemochromatosis? I discovered that I have iron overload!

  42. Very good information, thanks for this!!

    There seems to be an error in the picture. The females need 15-18 mg, but lactating women (in parenthesis under the pregnant women), only 9-10 mg. Why is that or should it be additional 9-10 mg??

    :)

    • Hi Katariina,

      Since lactating women are typically not menstruating, their iron needs are less. But, as soon as a nursing mom’s monthly cycle returns, she needs about 15 mg iron daily. Very little iron is contained in breast milk which is also why breastfed babies need supplemental iron at 6-9 months old. Up until then, they have enough iron from being in the womb. Here’s the NIH link on recommended intakes: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/#h2

  43. I know this is an older article, but wanted to share. Your hemoglobin isn’t always an indicator of low iron. My hemoglobin is normal, but my ferritin level is very low. If you don’t feel great, have both checked…..

  44. Hi Kris,
    I recently became a vegetarian & everyone in the household is worried about my iron levels.
    I actually got a blood test last week – that was fine.
    Anyway your PDF will help a lot.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Damayanthi

  45. I’ve had a pretty severe flair up of IBS and ulcers, was using antacids every day. I didn’t know how awful that was for nutrition, and my digestive system. I stopped using all antacids, and only use baking soda once a month or so instead. I began consuming an ounce of olive oil per day (incorporate into diet, or eat after drinking the olive oil). It took about a month being off antacids (and avoiding acidic and fried food) before something interesting happened. My stomach seems to have FIXED itself. My bowel problems are a little better, but still there. But my stomach is almost NEVER acidic anymore. I stopped the antacids and just eat vegetables, pita bread, olive oil, lean meat (an ounce a day), and almost no processed food. Feeling better, but still looking into the IBS. It’s SUCH a relief to be rid of all the acid problems.