Welcome to our blog about food for vegans, who don’t eat meat or other animal products due to health, ethical, or religious reasons. If you’re looking for practical advice and information on eating well as a vegan, you’re in the right place!
Food 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.
These 6 foods are great sources of vegan-friendly iron:
1. Blackstrap molasses
Blackstrap molasses is the best source of nonheme iron. Only 2 tablespoon contains 7.2 milligrams of iron. Molasses contains higher amounts of sugar, so intake should be limited.
Lentils come in three varieties: brown, green, and red. Lentils are not only full of iron, but also high in potassium, fiber, and folate, a B vitamin. One cup contains 6.6 milligrams of iron.
Tofu and tempeh soy-based products are an integral part of a vegan diet. Tofu has a higher iron content of 6.6 milligrams per half-cup. One cup of tempeh has 4.5 milligrams of iron.
One cup of cooked spinach contains 6.4 milligrams of iron. Adding spinach to meals, whether it’s sauteed in a dish, added to smoothies, or eaten raw, is an easy way of including more iron in your diet.
Beans are a great source of iron. Kidney beans (5.2 milligram / cup), soybeans (4.5 milligrams / cup), and lima beans (4.5 milligrams / cup) have the highest iron content.
6. Swiss chard
Swiss chard is a green leafy vegetable rich in vitamins and minerals. This multi-beneficial vegetable can be steamed, sauteed, or eaten raw. But it’s less bitter when cooked. One cup of cooked swiss chard contains 4 milligrams of iron.
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.
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 by 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.
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:
- Pale or yellowish skin
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Chest pain
- Cold hands and feet
Iron-rich foods for vegetarians and vegans
Iron is an essential mineral for health. Although red meat and seafood are good sources of iron, many plant-based foods also contain plenty of this mineral.
Numerous vegetables, legumes, and other foods contain a form of iron called nonheme iron, which accounts for the majority of people’s iron intake in the United States. The type of iron in animal products is called heme iron.
Although the body can absorb it more easily, heme iron is not essential to the human diet.
By selecting the right foods, people eating a vegetarian or vegan diet can meet their daily iron requirements without needing to take supplements.
In this article, we list the best iron-rich vegetarian foods. We also provide some tips to help people maximize their iron absorption from nonheme sources.
The following are some of the best iron-rich foods for vegetarians and vegans:
Lentils are rich in iron, protein, and fiber, making them a great addition to a healthful diet. Each cup of cooked lentils contains 6.59 milligrams (mg) of iron and 17.86 grams (g) of protein.
Lentils also contain many other nutrients, including B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Research suggests that eating lentils on a regular basis reduces the risk of diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart disease.
People can include brown, red, or green lentils in soups, stews, curries, salads, and other meals.
Cannellini beans, or white kidney beans, provide 5.2 mg of iron per cup.
As with lentils, the protein and fiber content of beans makes them a healthful option. They also contain many other essential minerals and plant compounds.
Several studies support the consumption of beans to reduce the risk of heart disease and related conditions.
Other types of bean, including those below, also contain high amounts of iron per cup:
- garbanzo beans, or chickpeas: 4.74 mg
- black-eyed peas: 3.59 mg
- red kidney beans: 3.59 mg
Beans are a very versatile food, and they work well as an ingredient in many dishes, including tacos, chili, soups, salads, and bean dips.
Tofu is a bean curd that manufacturers make by coagulating the milk from soybeans. It is popular among vegans and vegetarians as it contains significant amounts of protein, iron, and calcium. A half-cup serving of tofu contains 6.65 mg of iron and about 10 g of protein.
Some research suggests that soy products reduce the risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. Tempeh and natto are other soy products that contain iron and may provide additional health benefits.
Tofu is available in several different forms, including firm, soft, and silken. People can grill or fry firm tofu to use as a meat substitute, add soft tofu to casseroles, and blend silken tofu with cocoa powder and a sweetener to make a delicious chocolate dessert.
This ancient grain is gluten-free and provides 5.17 mg of iron per cooked cup along with over 9 g of protein.
It also contains many other nutrients that are essential for health, including fiber, manganese, and magnesium.
A 2012 review of research on the amaranth grain suggests that it has antioxidant and antitumor effects, reduces cholesterol and blood sugar levels, boosts immune function, and improves high blood pressure and anemia.
Other grains that provide plenty of iron include quinoa and steel-cut oats.
Many types of breakfast cereal, including oats, contain iron that manufacturers add during processing. Fortified grains are a vital source of this mineral, providing approximately half of all dietary iron in the U.S.
People should look for fortified breakfast cereals that contain 100 percent of the daily value of iron per serving.
While these cereals are generally suitable for vegetarians, vegans should check if the product also has added vitamin D. Not all vitamin D sources are vegan-friendly.
Although chocolate is traditionally a dessert food, a 3-ounce serving of dark chocolate provides 7 mg of iron.
Cocoa is also one of the best sources of flavonoid antioxidants, which may provide heart benefits, protect nerves, boost immunity, and improve cognitive function and mood.
While dark chocolate is an iron-rich food, it is high in calories, so people should enjoy it as an occasional treat.
Potatoes, especially their skins, are a good source of iron. A medium potato in its skin provides 2 mg of iron.
Potatoes are a staple food in many cultures and can benefit health in numerous ways. They are a source of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, resistant starch, vitamin C, and potassium.
For a complete meal, people can top baked potatoes with cottage cheese, hummus, beans, or lentils and serve them with vegetables or salad.
It is best to avoid adding a lot of butter, oil, or cheese to the potatoes as this increases the fat and calorie content of the meal.
Spinach is low in calories but high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. One cup of cooked spinach provides 6.43 mg of iron.
Most people find it easy to incorporate more spinach into their diets by sautéing or steaming the vegetable and adding it to soups and stir-fries. Raw spinach can also be an ingredient in smoothies and salads.
A cup of dried apricot halves contains 4.1 mg of iron. Dried fruits are also rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They make ideal snacks as they are easy to eat on the go.
However, dried fruit is also high in sugar and calories. To avoid weight gain or the effects of too much sugar, people should enjoy dried apricots in moderation.
Hulled hemp seeds
A 3-tablespoon serving of hulled hemp seeds contains 2.38 mg of iron and over 9 grams of protein. These seeds are one of the few plant-based sources of omega-3 fats, which are essential for heart and brain health.
A 2018 study reported that hemp seed extract demonstrated antioxidant effects in laboratory tests. These antioxidant benefits, coupled with the omega-3 content of the seeds, may help protect against heart problems and neurodegenerative diseases.
People can sprinkle hemp seeds on oatmeal, yogurt, or desserts, or blend them into smoothies for a snack that is rich in iron and protein.
Blackstrap molasses is a byproduct of sugar production. Unlike sugar, the molasses retains the nutrients from sugar cane, which include calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B-6.
This thick syrup is also a good source of iron, providing 3.6 mg per tablespoon. However, it is best to limit the intake of blackstrap molasses to avoid consuming too much sugar.
People typically use blackstrap molasses in baked goods and raw desserts, as a glaze for vegetables, or to sweeten oatmeal.
How much iron do you need?
The National Institutes of Health recommend that women over the age of 50 years and all adult men get 8 mg of iron daily.
Women aged between 19 and 50 years should aim for 18 mg per day, while pregnant women require 27 mg of iron for fetal health.
However, some sources suggest that vegetarians and vegans may need up to 1.8 times these amounts because the body does not absorb nonheme iron as easily as it does heme iron.
Low iron intake or absorption can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Symptoms may include:
- pale skin
- heart palpitations
- cold hands and feet
- a sore tongue
- brittle nails
- poor appetite
Anyone who is experiencing these symptoms should see a doctor.
A person can increase the amount of iron that their body absorbs from plant-based sources by eating iron-rich foods alongside a source of vitamin C.
Good sources of vitamin C include:
- bell peppers
- cantaloupe melon
- citrus fruits
- kiwi fruit
- leafy green vegetables
- sweet potatoes
They should also avoid foods, beverages, and supplements that reduce iron absorption for up to 2 hours before and after iron-rich meals. These include:
- black tea
- calcium supplements
- peppermint tea
- red wine
Antacid medications also inhibit iron absorption.
Vegetarian foods can be excellent sources of iron, especially when people eat them in combination with a food that is rich in vitamin C.
People who do not eat meat can ensure that they get enough iron by consuming a wide variety of iron-rich, plant-based foods.
Anyone who is concerned that they may not be getting enough iron from their diet should speak to a doctor or dietician.
What is iron and why do our bodies need it?
Iron is a mineral that regularly comes into the spotlight in vegan nutrition. But what is iron? And should vegans be concerned about getting enough of it?
Iron is found all around us, in our environment, our food and our bodies. We require iron to make haemoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen around our body via red blood cells.
Iron also supports the function of our immune system, growth and development and even our learning and behaviour.
Due to its vital role in human health, it is important that we get a regular supply through the food we eat.
Signs of iron deficiency in vegans – can veganism cause anaemia?
For example, if we don’t get enough iron, our body simply cannot make enough haemoglobin, limiting our ability to deliver oxygen to our muscles.
Early signs of iron deficiency include tiredness, low energy, and pale skin. Furthermore, severe iron deficiency, or ‘iron deficiency anaemia’ can result in brittle nails, thinning hair, itchy skin, heart palpitations and mouth ulcers.
In the UK, we recommended a daily dietary intake of 8.7mg of iron. Menstruating women are more at risk of iron deficiency due to regular blood loss during their monthly cycle.
Women aged between 19 and 50 are therefore recommended to increase their intake to 14.8mg per day.
In fact, very low intakes of iron have been found in 54% of girls and 27% of women, regardless of the diet they consumed.
‘Early signs of iron deficiency include tiredness, low energy, and pale skin’
Can veganism cause iron deficiency?
Due to our historical and cultural emphasis on the iron content of meat, there is a widely held belief that a vegan diet is deficient in iron.
However, a large study of over 40,000 women found that vegans did not have lower intakes of iron than meat-eaters.
In fact, you may be surprised to hear that studies have shown vegan populations to have a higher intake of iron than other dietary patterns.
So, if vegans are getting lots of dietary iron, why should we worry?
Bioavailability of plant foods
The concern stems from the absorbability (or ‘bioavailability’) of iron from plant foods. Iron comes in two forms; haem iron and non-haem iron.
Haem iron comes from animal foods and is highly absorbable. Non-haem iron comes from plants and is less well-absorbed.
This is because plant foods contain other substances, such as phytates, that bind with minerals like iron, reducing their bioavailability.
Phytates are found in many healthy plant foods including wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
These foods are jam-packed with beneficial substances such as fibre, phytonutrients and antioxidants so we should not be trying to avoid them.
Moreover, the reduced bioavailability of plant-derived iron may be why long-term vegans have been found to have lower iron stores.
Despite this, vegans are at no higher risk of developing iron-deficiency anaemia than the general population.
In fact, consuming plant-derived iron actually allows our body to have more control over absorption. If our iron stores are low, the body adapts to absorb more from plant foods, if we have sufficient amounts, absorption will decrease.
In contrast to plant-based iron, iron from meat is readily absorbed, whatever our iron status. This can be a bad thing as the human body has no efficient way to rid itself of excess iron.
Additionally, iron is a pro-oxidant and high levels have been identified as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer.
So, meeting your iron requirements using a range of delicious vegan sources of iron may even be the wisest decision after all!
Wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds contain phytates which bind with minerals like iron and therefore reduce their bioavailability
How to maximise iron absorption
Many plant foods contain good amounts of iron, but there are ways of preparing foods that can increase your body’s ability to absorb it.
For instance, pairing plant-based iron with a source of vitamin C can increase absorption up to 6 fold1. Conveniently, plant-based diets are naturally rich in vitamin C.
In addition, don’t drink tea or coffee with meals. This is because the tannins in these drinks act in a similar way to phytates, reducing iron absorption.
Another unusual but useful tip is to cook using cast iron pans. This is because small amounts of iron leach into your cooking and can boost your iron intake!
Drinking tea and coffee with your meals reduces iron absorption because the tannins acts like phytates
Top 10 vegan sources of iron
One sachet of fortified instant oats can provide your body with a whopping 7.8mg of iron. Choosing 30g of fortified bran flakes will provides 2.4mg of iron. You can also increase your absorption by adding 80g of strawberries.
Just 100g of this fermented soya product provides 3.6mg of iron. Pair it with some steamed broccoli to give your body an absorption boost.
Adding 2tbsp of pumpkin seeds to your meal will provide 3mg of iron. A 150ml glass of fruit juice will provide absorption-boosting vitamin C.
Beans on toast is a win for an iron-rich meal, with 200g of baked beans providing 2.8mg of iron. Finish your meal with a kiwi to get the most iron from your meal.
Cook up 75g of dry wholewheat pasta and your meal will contain 2.4mg of iron. Alternatively, mix in some kale for a vitamin C kick.
Cook 50g of quinoa and stir into a salad to get 3.9mg of iron. Squeeze some lemon or lime juice over the top for a zingy taste and an iron boost.
Having a sandwich using 2 slices of wholemeal bread will provide 1.8mg of iron from the bread alone. Add in some sliced bell pepper for a crunch and a vitamin C hit.
Just 1 Tbsp will provide 1.6mg of iron. Drizzle it over your salad or use it in your hummus. Alternatively, pairing it with lemon juice is the perfect match for taste and iron absorption.
Sprinkle 2tbsp over your breakfast or lunch for 1mg of iron. Enjoy pineapple after your meal for the vitamin C benefits.
Finally, you can also snack on a handful of cashew nuts for 1.9mg of iron. Pair with blackcurrants for a dose of vitamin C.
Other sources of plant-based iron include red kidney beans, lentils, oats, chickpeas, peas, couscous, dried apricots, almonds, spring greens, oatcakes, hazelnuts, tofu, spinach, kale, dried prunes, walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, brown rice, peanuts, raisins, flaxseeds, dark chocolate (minimum 70%), as well as prunes and figs.
In conclusion, most of us can get all the iron we need from a well-planned vegan diet. Consequently, supplementation is often unnecessary and can in fact be harmful.
If you have any concerns, or a condition that puts you at a higher risk of deficiency, get your iron levels checked by a healthcare professional who can advise on the best course of action for you.