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 hematocritight: 400;”> 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.
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:
- Smoky Southwestern Hummus
- Basil Hummus Stuffed Mushrooms
- Sweet Potato Hummus
- Hummus Tartine with an Olive, Tomato, Lemon and Basil Salsa
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,