The health benefits of eating plant-based, whether vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian, are well established: Lower incidences of serious conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. But you may have heard that vegans fall short on some nutrients, like iron. While it may not be as easy to find vegan sources of iron, it’s possible to get enough iron on a vegan or vegetarian diet from plant-based foods, you just have to know the best vegan sources of iron to add to your diet.
“You can absolutely meet your nutrient needs for iron on a plant-based diet,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, The Plant-Powered Dietitian. As a plant-based eater, you’re already enjoying many iron-rich vegan foods, from whole grains and leafy greens to beans and tofu. We’ll show you how to optimize your intake with these simple tips to
Why We Need Iron
The major reason we need iron is to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to every part of the body. Our cells and tissues rely on oxygen to create energy. Iron is also essential for muscle function, brain development, and other important functions in the body.
Low iron stores can lead to iron deficiency, while extremely low or exhausted iron levels can become iron-deficiency anemia. Mildly low iron levels may not have any symptoms, but as levels get lower, symptoms may appear. According to the Institute of Medicine, iron levels have been shown to be markedly lower in vegetarian men, women, and children compared to those eating a non-vegetarian diet. However, studies have also shown that iron deficiency anemia is no more prevalent among vegetarian men than among non-vegetarian men. Vegetarian women, studies show, have a considerably higher prevalence of anemia.
Common symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Pale skin
- Shortness of breath
- heart palpitations
- Cold hands and feet
- Restless legs
- Dry skin or brittle nails
- Tongue swelling or soreness
Heme and Non-Heme Iron
Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme simply means iron that’s attached to red blood cells (hemoglobin), so heme iron is only found in animal sources, such as beef, chicken, and certain seafood.
Non-heme iron can also be in meat, poultry, and fish, but is found mostly in plant foods and iron-fortified foods. Most dietary iron is non-heme iron. Heme iron contributes just 10-15 percent of the iron we get through food. But heme iron is more bioavailable, which means the body absorbs it better than non-heme iron. Research estimates heme iron bioavailability to be about 15-35 percent, compared to non-heme iron, which ranges between 2-20 percent.
Iron bioavailability for vegans, vegetarians, and other plant-based eaters is likely lower than those whose dietary patterns include animal sources, such as flexitarians or pescatarians. To account for this discrepancy, it’s recommended that plant-based eaters consume 1.8 times—or almost twice—the recommended iron intake for people who eat meat or animal-sourced foods. For women between ages 19 and 50, that’s about 32 milligrams per day and it’s 14 milligrams for women ages 51 and older.
How much iron do you need?
- Women 19-50: 18 milligrams (mg)
- Men 19-50: 8 mg
- Women and men 51+: 8 mg
- Pregnant women: 27 mg
- Breastfeeding women: 9 mg
“Many people who are on plant-based diets meet their iron needs and do not have anemia,” says Palmer. To make up the difference, it’s important for plant-based eaters to prioritize non-heme iron sources.
“Don’t get caught up with estimating how many milligrams you’re getting every day, but try to make sure there are sources of whole grains, legumes, notably soy foods, at each meal, a green leafy vegetable each day, nuts and seeds daily, and fruits and vegetables at every meal to provide vitamin C, which increases iron absorption,” she says. It’s also a good idea to get your lab levels tested each year to make sure you’re not falling short, Palmer advises.
Top 10 Vegan Sources of Iron
- Blackstrap molasses. Just 2 tablespoons contain 7 mg of iron. Try it in pancake, waffle, or muffin batters, whirl into smoothies, add to marinades and sauces, or drizzle over oatmeal or other porridge.
- Lentils (and other legumes). One cup of lentils packs nearly 7 mg of iron. Red, green, and brown varieties are also high in fiber, folate, and potassium. Try them in soups, as a meat replacement in burritos, tacos, and stuffed bell peppers or squash, baked into casseroles, or instead of rice beneath curries or stir-fries.
- Tofu (and tempeh). One half-cup has just over 4 mg of iron. Give this soy-based vegan superstar a try as a meat substitute on the grill, in a stir fry, scrambled like eggs, or as a marinated side dish. You’ll get your iron, as well as a healthy dose of protein, minerals, and the powerful health-protecting compounds known as isoflavones.
- Pumpkin Seeds. Adding 2 tablespoons (about 1 ounce) provides 4 mg of iron. Tasty on their own, in trail mix and granola, on salads, mixed into chili, or as the finishing touch on veggie and whole-grain sides, pepitas (their Spanish name) are an easy iron boost.
- Spinach. About 3 cups serve up nearly 3 mg of iron. And that’s raw spinach leaves, enough for a fresh salad. Cook it down in a saute, soup, casserole, or frittata, and you’ll easily double the amount, along with the iron. Bonus: spinach contains vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron.
- Quinoa. Each 1-cup serving has close to 3 mg of iron. Enjoy this gluten-free grain, which is also rich in protein and many other nutrients, as a morning porridge, savory side dish, an addition to salads and baked goods, or as a fun substitute for rice.
- Fortified Cereals. About 1-cup has more than 8 mg of iron. Rice cereal, corn flakes, bran flakes, and instant oatmeal (a smaller portion contains the same amount of iron) are popular sources. Enjoy these for breakfast with plant-based milk, as a snack, in baked goods, and in cooking.
- Dark Chocolate. Just 1-ounce has more than 3 mg of iron. One thick square or part of a thin bar gives you a tasty treat and your iron, as well as a host of health-protecting antioxidants and minerals. Enjoy on its own and in place of chocolate containing less than 70 percent cocoa.
- Dried Fruit. A quarter-cup delivers 1 mg of iron. Dried fruits, such as apricots, raisins, figs, and prunes, are compact, portable, shelf-stable, and a healthy treat to enjoy as a snack or addition to sweet and savory dishes alike, from plant-based yogurt or ice cream parfaits to whole grain pilafs.
- Tahini. Two tablespoons have nearly 2 mg of iron. This sesame seed butter and hummus-essential is also a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Spread it on toast, whirl into smoothies, use it in salad dressings and sauces, and use it to make Mediterranean eggplant dip.
Other Foods High in Iron are All Legumes
- Black beans
- Navy beans
- Kidney beans
Make sure to eat these with vitamin C foods for best absorption by the body.
The absorbability of non-heme iron sourced from plants is affected by several factors, some that enhance it and some that interfere with it. Research supports adding foods that are rich in vitamin C to each meal to increase non-heme iron absorption. Plant foods contain many nutrients and compounds, such as phytates, that bind with certain minerals like iron and reduce their bioavailability.
This doesn’t make them less healthy, however. Phytate-containing foods include whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, and they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber we very much need in our diet. Polyphenols in foods, including coffee, tea, and wine, and some proteins, like soy protein, may also inhibit absorption. Calcium supplementation, which is common among vegans, can make both heme iron and non-heme iron less available to the body, so check that you’re not getting more than the recommended daily intake and ask your doctor’s recommendation on whether to continue if your iron levels are low.
Top 4 Ways to Boost Iron
1. Pair Vegetable Iron with Vitamin C
A couple of simple pairings:
- Oatmeal topped with strawberries
- Whole grain toast and orange juice
- Pasta salad with broccoli
- Tomato soup with white beans
- Quinoa-stuffed bell peppers
- Snow pea and spinach stir fry over brown rice
Fruits & Vegetables High in Vitamin C:
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, clementines)
- Tomato (and tomato products)
- Snow peas
- Red cabbage
- Brussels sprouts
2. Cook with a Cast Iron Pan
Cook in a cast iron pan can boost iron even more. Research supports this as an effective treatment for iron deficiency anemia.
3. Add Fermented Foods
Fermented foods, such as kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, and tempeh, have also been shown to enhance non-heme iron absorption.
4. Sip Coffee Separately
Coffee and tea make iron absorption more difficult. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your fix. Research suggests enjoying them before or after a meal, rather than during, which helps the body absorb more iron.
Bottom Line: With a little planning you can get enough iron on a plant-based diet
If you’re concerned you’re not getting enough iron, get your iron levels checked. Your doctor will let you know if you’re anemic or falling short and whether you should take a plant-based supplement. If your levels are fine, continue to enjoy a plant-based diet. Eat a balanced diet, use a cast-iron skillet and get plenty of vitamin C with meals.