Best Vegetarian Foods For Iron

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Finding the best vegetarian foods for iron can be tricky since a lot of them are low-quality sources of this mineral. We’ve put together a list of the best vegetarian foods to get and keep an iron deficiency under control.

There are many benefits of eating vegetarian foods but find out what are the best vegetarian foods for iron.

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Top Foods High in Iron for Vegans

Iron is a mineral essential for proper growth and development. Your body uses it to make hemoglobin and certain hormones. Two types of iron are found in food: heme (animal-derived) and non-heme (plant-derived). 

Although it can be taken as a supplement, enough iron is available in our dietary sources. Vegans can find non-heme iron in dried beans and legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain cereals and pieces of bread.

Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of the body. Myoglobin, another protein made by iron, brings oxygen to your muscles. 

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Why You Need Iron

Your body needs iron to function properly. Too little will lead to an iron deficiency. Too much can cause iron poisoning. The average amount of iron a vegan needs is 32 milligrams per day for women and 14 milligrams per day for men. Vegans need up to 1.8 times more iron than people who eat meat. 

Iron plays an important part in proper bodily functions, including: 

Blood Production Health

Iron is found in red blood cells called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood from your lungs to your tissues. This improves your heart health, respiratory functions, and immune function. 

Physical Health

Your skin, hair, and nails appear stronger and healthier due to the synthesis of collagen, a protein needed for joint and skin health. Collagen is made from iron, a component of the enzymes essential for proper production. Iron is found in muscle cells. Called myoglobin, it helps muscles accept, store, and transport oxygen. 

Mental Health

Iron makes up certain proteins essential for energy metabolism. The right amount of iron improves general energy and increases focus. Low levels of iron can lead to an iron deficiency called anemia. The symptoms of anemia include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale or yellowish skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Headaches

Foods With Iron For Vegans

There is a misconception that a vegan diet is missing iron, however, vegans are no more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia than the general population. Vegans typically consume an adequate amount of iron because their diet is high in vitamin C, which improves absorption of nonheme iron.

Top 10 High Iron Foods for Vegetarians and Vegans

Top 10 High Iron Foods for Vegetarians and Vegans
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Iron is an essential nutrient primarily needed for the transport of oxygen throughout the body. A deficiency of iron leads to weakness and anemia, commonly called iron deficiency anemia. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may take time to develop and include fatigue, weakness, anxiety, irritability, hair loss, and depression. Iron deficiency anemia is difficult to diagnose and requires a blood test.

Iron is more bio-available from heme (meat) sources than from non-heme (plant sources), so vegans and vegetarians are often concerned about their iron status and intake. The Institute of Health almost doubles the recommended daily allowances of iron for vegetarians from 11mg to 20mg of iron per day for adults. The daily value (DV) seen on most food labels also takes vegetarians into account and is set at 18mg per day. This amount of iron is a good goal for almost all individuals, except pregnant women, who should consume 27mg per day.

The good news is that the less iron you have the more your body will absorb, boosting the bioavailability of iron from all sources. Vitamin C found in plant foods also boosts iron absorption. The bad news is that nutrients like polyphenols in plant foods can block iron absorption. For information, see the section on iron absorption.

Vegetarian and vegan sources of iron include beans, lentils, tofu, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, whole grains, mushrooms, seeds, nuts, pumpkin, squash, and salad greens. Eating a wide variety of these foods should ensure you get the 18mg daily value for iron. Below are the top 10 vegetarian and vegan iron food sources ranked by common serving size. For more, see the extended list of less common iron foods and the article on fruits and vegetables high in iron.

High Iron Foods for Vegetarians and Vegans

Dried Apricots

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#1: Dried Fruit (Apricots)

Iron
per Cup
Iron
per 100g
Iron
per 200 Calories
8mg
(42% DV)
6mg
(35% DV)
4mg
(22% DV)
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More Dried fruit High in Iron

  • 36% DV per cup of dried peaches
  • 26% DV per cup of dried prunes and currants
  • 24% DV per cup of dried raisins
  • 21% DV per cup of dried pears
  • 17% DV per cup of dried figs
  • 7% DV per cup of dried apples

Note: Dried fruit is high in natural sugars, so should be eaten in moderate servings of around 1 handful per day.White Beans

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#2: Large White Beans

Iron
per Cup
Iron
per 100g
Iron
per 200 Calories
7mg
(37% DV)
4mg
(21% DV)
5mg
(30% DV)
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More Beans High in Iron

  • 49% DV per cup of cooked soybeans
  • 37% DV per cup of cooked lentils
  • 26% DV per cup of cooked garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • 25% DV per cup of lima beans
  • 24% DV per cup of navy beans
  • 20% DV per cup of black beans (frijoles negros)
  • 20% DV per cup of pinto beans
  • 20% DV per cup of black-eyed peas

.A Bowl of Spinach

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#3: Spinach

Iron
per Cup Cooked
Iron
per 100g
Iron
per 200 Calories
6mg
(36% DV)
4mg
(20% DV)
31mg
(172% DV)
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Other Greens High in Iron

  • 22% DV per cup of cooked Swiss chard
  • 16% DV per cup of cooked turnip greens
  • 6% DV per cup of raw chopped kale
  • 5% DV per cup of raw chopped beet greens

.Thick dark chocolate squares melting

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#4: Baking Chocolate (Unsweetened)

Iron
per 1oz Square
Iron
per 100g
Iron
per 200 Calories
5mg
(28% DV)
17mg
(97% DV)
5mg
(30% DV)
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  • 66% DV per cup of cocoa powder
  • 6% DV in a 1.5oz (45g) piece of milk chocolate

A bowl of quinoa

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#5: Quinoa

Iron
per Cup
Iron
per 100g
Iron
per 200 Calories
3mg
(15% DV)
1mg
(8% DV)
2mg
(14% DV)
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More Grains High in Iron

  • 12% DV per cup of oatmeal
  • 12% DV per cup of barley
  • 11% DV per cup of rice
  • 10% DV per cup of bulgur
  • 7% DV per cup of buckwheat
  • 6% DV per cup of millet

Bran from whole grains can impair absorption of iron supplements, while whole grains are a good source of iron, they should not be consumed with iron supplements.

Vegetarian Foods That Are Loaded With Iron

Iron is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in many bodily functions (1)

A diet lacking in iron can result in low energy levels, shortness of breath, headaches, irritability, dizziness, or anemia.

Iron can be found in two forms in foods — heme and non-heme. Heme iron is only found in animal products, whereas non-heme iron is only found in plants.

The recommended daily intake (RDI) is based on an average intake of 18 mg per day. However, individual requirements vary based on a person’s gender and life stage.

For instance, men and post-menopausal women generally require around 8 mg of iron per day. This amount increases to 18 mg per day for menstruating women and to 27 mg per day for pregnant women.

And, since non-heme iron tends to be less easily absorbed by our bodies than heme iron, the RDI for vegetarians and vegans is 1.8 times higher than for meat-eaters.

Here is a list of 21 plant foods that are high in iron.

1–3: Legumes

Legumes, including beans, peas, and lentils, are great sources of iron.

Listed below are the varieties containing the most iron, from highest to lowest.

1. Tofu, Tempeh, Natto, and Soybeans

Soybeans and foods derived from soybeans are packed with iron.

In fact, soybeans contain around 8.8 mg of it per cup or 49% of the RDI. The same portion of natto, a fermented soybean product, offers 15 mg, or 83% of the RDI

Similarly, 6 ounces (168 grams) of tofu or tempeh each offer 3–3.6 mg of iron, or up to approximately 20% of the RDI

In addition to iron, these soy products contain between 10–19 grams of protein per portion and are also a good source of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium.

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2. Lentils

Lentils are another iron-filled food, providing 6.6 mg per cup cooked, or 37% of the RDI.

These contain a significant amount of protein, complex carbs, fiber, folate, and manganese as well. One cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein and covers around 50% of your recommended daily fiber intake.

3. Other Beans and Peas

Other types of beans contain good amounts of iron as well.

White, lima, red kidney, and navy beans closely follow soybeans, offering 4.4–6.6 mg of iron per cup cooked, or 24–37% of the RDI

However, chickpeas and black-eyed peas have the highest iron content. They provide around 4.6–5.2 mg per cup cooked or 26–29% of the RDI

In addition to their iron content, beans and peas are excellent sources of complex carbs, fiber, folate, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and several beneficial plant compounds.

Several studies also link regularly consuming beans and peas to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, as well as reductions in belly fat

SUMMARY:Beans, peas and lentils are rich in iron. These legumes also contain good amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds that may reduce your risk of various diseases.

4–5: Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds serve as two more iron-rich plant sources.

Those who wish to increase their total daily iron intake should add the following varieties to their diet, as they contain the highest amounts.

4. Pumpkin, Sesame, Hemp, and Flaxseeds

Pumpkin, sesame, hemp, and flaxseeds are the seeds richest in iron, containing around 1.2–4.2 mg per two tablespoons, or 7–23% of the RDI

Products derived from these seeds are also worth considering. For instance, two tablespoons of tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, contain 2.6 mg of iron — which is 14% of the RDI.

Similarly, hummus made from chickpeas and tahini provides you with around 3 mg of iron per half cup, or 17% of the RDI

Seeds contain good amounts of plant protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, antioxidants, and other beneficial plant compounds, too

They’re also a great source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hemp seeds, in particular, seem to contain these two fats in the ratio considered optimal for human health

5. Cashews, Pine Nuts, and Other Nuts

Nuts and nut butter contain quite a bit of non-heme iron.

This is especially true for almonds, cashews, pine nuts, and macadamia nuts, which contain between 1–1.6 mg of iron per ounce, or around 6–9% of the RDI.

Similarly to seeds, nuts are a great source of protein, fiber, good fats, vitamins, and minerals, as well as antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds

Keep in mind that blanching or roasting nuts may damage their nutrients, so favor raw and unblanched varieties

As for nut butter, it’s best to choose a 100% natural variety to avoid an unnecessary dose of added oils, sugars, and salt.

SUMMARY:Nuts and seeds are good sources of non-heme iron, as well as an array of other vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fats and beneficial plant compounds. Add a small portion to your menu each day.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What vegetarian foods are high in iron?

There are many vegetarian foods that are high in iron. Some of the best sources are dark, leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale. Other good sources include nuts, seeds, and legumes like black beans and lentils.

How can a vegetarian increase iron level quickly?

There are a few ways that a vegetarian can increase their iron levels quickly. One way is to eat foods that are high in iron, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, and nuts. Another way is to take an iron supplement.

How do vegetarians get daily iron intake?

There are a few different ways that vegetarians can get their daily iron intake. One way is to eat iron-rich foods such as lentils, spinach, and fortified cereals. Another way is to take a supplement.

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