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 breaks down why iron is important, where to get it, and what to do if you’re deficient and that’s 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 Cover the Basics: What Is Iron?
So glad you asked! Iron is an essential nutrient—a mineral to be exact—and its main job is to produce hemoglobin to transport oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. Iron is also key in the creation of myoglobin in muscle cells (which also transports good ole’ O2 to cells). They’re even important for energy metabolism. It’s also part of the enzymes that are essential for tip-top digestion and overall body health.
The health benefits of iron make it an important ingredient in healthy eating. 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 if You Have an Iron Deficiency?
Anemia—aka iron deficiency anemia—is actually the most common nutritional deficiency in the US. An iron deficiency can lead to delayed motor and mental functioning in infants, small or preterm babies for pregnant women, 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, and 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.
Iron and Vegetarian Diets: 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. 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.
What if You’re Eating Iron-Rich Foods and You’re Still Anemic?
It’s possible to eat lots of iron-rich plant-based 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, iron supplements may be warranted. A daily dose of 25-50 mg of iron may be helpful (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 Meat to Increase Your Iron Intake?
Nope! But I like to give you guys the full scoop, so let’s clarify a few things. There are two kinds of iron:
- Heme iron: Heme iron is found in red meat, fish, and poultry. This type of iron is in foods that contain hemoglobin. The body absorbs 7-35 % of heme iron (more readily absorbed than non-heme iron).
- Non-heme iron: Non-heme iron is 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 increased heart disease like the heme iron only found in meat (meta-analysis here).
The good news is that iron needs can be met completely with non-heme iron from plant sources. It’s just important to pay attention to the factors that may affect absorption especially if someone is iron deficient.
Plant Foods that Boost Iron Absorption
So what can increase iron absorption?
Vitamin C Increases Iron Absorption
The absorption of non-heme iron found in plant foods can be enhanced when those foods are eaten with vitamin C-rich good guys. Combine iron-rich foods in the same meal with these vitamin C-rich fruits and veggies:
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, strawberries)
Vitamin C is an acid (ascorbic to be exact), and acids increase the bioavailability of 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: Increase iron absorption and add these foods to your plate with foods high in iron every day!
Foods that Inhibit Iron Absorption
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 need 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 herbal teas, peppermint tea, red grapes, chocolate, and coffee inhibit absorption of iron (study here). But, consuming these foods an hour before or an hour after the iron-rich meal does not affect iron absorption.
Phytates are important antioxidants and anti-inflammatory plant compounds found in the highest quantities in wheat bran, soybeans, pinto beans, kidney beans, and peanuts. Oddly enough, some of the foods that are high in iron also contain high amounts of phytates.
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-based foods contain notable levels of phytates.
Here are some foods that impact nonheme iron absorption:
- 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
15 Plant-Based Sources of Iron
Drum roll please! It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for—12 amazing plant-based foods to give your diet the iron boost that it needs.
Soybeans pack a powerful punch. Soybeans contain 4.5 mg of iron per serving (1/2 cup or 86 grams).
Roasted and toasted sesame seeds contain 4.2 mg of iron in a 1 oz. (28 g) serving. You can eat your sesame seeds in yummy bars like this one, sprinkle some on top of this Broccoli Curry Udon, or make Turmeric Herb Falafel or Raw Carrot Falafel.
Eating a half cup (99 g) of cooked lentils will get you a serving of 3.3 mg of iron. On busy days, I love making simple soups like this 1-Pot Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup or this Sweet Potato & Lentil Soup.
These dark leafy greens contain 3.2 mg of iron per 1/2 a cup serving (90g). Beet greens pack a similar nutrient punch. You can’t go wrong with ripping and dipping your favorite pita bread in a bowl of vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip!
Cooked chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) contain 3.3mg of iron per a 1/2 cup (82g) serving. My favorite way to eat chickpeas is in a yummy hummus! Here’s a few scrumptious hummus recipes:
These lil’ lima beans contain 2.3 mg of iron 1/2 a cup (94 g) when cooked.
I’m not kidding when I tell you that a 1/2 cup serving of cooked kidney beans contains 2.2 mg of iron per serving. They’re great in soups, chili, and bean salads! Another fantastic recipe you should try if you want to eat more kidney beans is this one for Chili Quinoa Bean Bites With Chipotle Mashed Sweet Potatoes.
These great beans are next, and also contain 2.2 mg of iron per 1/2 cup serving (91 g).
Cooked swiss chard contains 2 mg of iron per cup 1/2 cup serving. This Butternut Squash and Chard Vegan Lasagna is a great one to feed the whole family!
Quinoa is an ancient grain that contains 1.4 mg of iron per 1/2 cup serving. Some great ways to use cooked quinoa include:
Finally, a fruit! Dried fruits like apricots can be good sources of iron. Dried apricots contain 1 mg of iron per 1/3 cup serving (or 40 g).
This one might surprise you, but prune juice contains 2.9 mg of iron per cup!
Pumpkin seeds are another great source to help you get more iron in your diet, containing 1 mg of iron per 1 oz. serving. These are a yummy snack on their own when baked with a little oil and salt or great addition to a salad for some added crunch. You can even use them in vegan mac & cheese. Hemp seeds and sunflower seeds are other great seeds to eat.
Dark chocolate is a special treat that contains 7 mg of iron in a 3 oz serving. Win-win!
You didn’t expect this one, did you? Molasses contains around 1.9 mg of iron per two tablespoons (you’ll just want to limit how often you incorporate it into your diet because of the high sugar content).
Sweet potatoes contain around 2.2 mg of iron in a single serving (a potato). This versatile veggie can be served as a falafel, hummus, soup, added to a quinoa bowl, cut into french fries, turned into a burger, stuffed with other yummy goodness, and so much more!
As you can see, many plant foods are rich in iron content and there’s an endless amount of delectable ways to eat them. To help you get started, here’s a sample of what you can eat in a day to increase your iron intake!
Sample Day of Iron for a Menstruating 40-Year-Old Woman
Most adults need at least 8mg of iron intake per day. Women should shoot for more, specifically 15-18 mg per day. Here’s what it could look like!
- 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 of 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 of iron
I hope we’ve demonstrated that iron is one of the proteins essential to a vegan diet and that there are plenty of plant-based food groups that can provide the iron you need without turning to animal products.
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,
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.
Thanks for this, Kris. I’m anemic and this info is really helpful!
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! 🙂
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: https://kriscarr.com/blog-video/my-crazy-sexy-guide-to-plant-based-protein/) and calcium (https://kriscarr.com/blog-video/dairy-free-diet-recipes/). If you have trouble adding these foods, consider supplements for iron and calcium.
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.
Hi, thanks for the information. Spinach and swiss chard may be nutritious and have iron, but they
both contain Oxalic acid which block mineral absorption. Balance enough with too much.
I love beets, beans (soak first), and some humans like blackstrap molasses. Peace, rachel the vegan
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. ???
I sure as Heck wouldn’tot give him cowcows milk that’s for sure!odnt give him cows milk
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.
Well said abo
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!
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!
Feel free to point people to my protein blog here: https://kriscarr.com/blog-video/my-crazy-sexy-guide-to-plant-based-protein/
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.
Raw spinach is a good iron source as well. Here is the nutrient info for raw spinach in all its quantities: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/3214 . For example, a 10-ounce package of spinach has 7.7 mg iron.
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!
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.
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!!!
I was anemic for many years and blamed it on being a vegetarian. Turns out it was because I had Celiac! Once my guts healed I was fine. Anemia is a very common first symptom of Celiac.
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?
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!
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.
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!
Can chlorophyll supplement help thanks
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
So thorough!! Thank you so much!
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.