Learn about the best sources of iron in a vegan diet and why it’s important not to consider this essential mineral.

Farro, chickpeas, tahini, bell peppers and onions in containers on a counter.

What is Iron and why do we need it?

There’s no coincidence that iron’s definition doubles as “something hard, strong, rigid, unyielding”. This mineral is vital for the human body to, well, become exactly that. 

With the help of your body’s haemoglobins, not only does it help transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of you but it allow your muscles to work at their best and it reduces recovery time after intense exercise. Hence, building a “strong and unyielding” engine.

Iron is also responsible for the production of new cells to support healthy nails, skin, hair and build a solid immune system. 

As your haemoglobins consist of about two-thirds of the iron in your body it makes sense to do a quick stretch or run to get you feeling temporarily rejuvenated. Periodical increases in blood flow transports oxygen through your body for a natural boost in energy.

A kitchen with fruits and vegetables on the counter.

Am I getting enough iron? 

By solely looking at your diet, you can probably get a pretty good estimate of whether your intake of iron is sufficient for you. How much is needed to reach an optimal level of iron in the body will depend on your age, gender and genetics.

Women aged between 19 to 50 need at least 18 mg to support a healthy menstrual cycle while men only require a daily dose of 8 mg. After menopause, women’s need for iron drops and they can get by with the same dose as the men — 8 mg a day. 

According to both the U.S. and Canadian Dietary Recommended Intake charts, adults shouldn’t exceed 45 mg of iron per day. Iron is one of the few minerals we cannot eliminate and a build-up over time can raise your body’s toxicity levels. This can be hard on your organs to process —especially in children. However, unless you’re regularly taking an iron supplement administered by your MD, it’s quite difficult to overdose just on whole foods.

Low iron levels are common in North America and around the world. This could mean a few things…either the population isn’t consuming enough iron on a regular basis, they’re having trouble absorbing it or they’ve been genetically predisposed to develop anemia. Regardless, it appears something needs to change on a dietary level for the majority of North Americans. 

Various cereals, pasta, nuts and seeds in glass containers.

How do I know if I’m low in iron?

Tired, lethargic, physical weakness, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet are just a few symptoms that could be indicating lower levels of iron.

Given these symptoms are fairly generic and may be associated with other health issues, it’s best to have a blood test to determine if low iron levels may be the cause.

A few other iron deficiency symptoms you may experience include:

  • A fast heartbeat
  • Craving strange substances such as dirt or clay
  • Brittle and spoon shaped nails or hair loss
  • Sores at the corner of the mouth
  • A sore tongue
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Pale skin

On the flip side, most people will absorb about 10% of their iron intake whereas people diagnosed with jemochromatosis take in 30%. Hemochromatosis is a hereditary disorder in which iron salts are deposited in the tissues. Overtime, this can lead to long term organ damage and potential exposure to the development of some cancers. 

Luckily, iron deficiencies can be treated fairly easily, usually through an iron-rich diet or iron supplements as directed by your doctor.

Be wary of self-diagnosing. If you suspect you may be lower in iron, talk to your doctor first. Get a test or two done, then based on your results you can establish a plan that works best for you and your health!

Low Iron Causes

Aside from a diet that lacks this essential mineral, there are many other factors that can result in lower levels of iron. The most common one, anemia.

People that develop anemia experience a decrease in the number of red blood cells in the blood. This could be caused by a lack of red cell production, blood loss or a high-rate of blood cell destruction.

Since two thirds of red blood cells are made up of iron, it is crucial for these individuals to be receiving a higher dosage to either make up for the deficit or help sustain healthy levels for their body. 

It’s important to note there is a difference between having low iron and being anemic. Anemic individuals have a low count of haemogoblins but this doesn’t always mean they have an iron deficiency. 

Other reasons someone could develop lower levels of iron could be due to difficulty absorbing this mineral. The majority of iron you intake from food is absorbed through the duodenum, so any sort of intestinal or gastric related issues could impact how much iron you actually retain. For example, gastrointestinal disease, celiac disease, undergoing gastric bypass and bacterial infections of the GI tract. 

Lastly, for the ladies, keeping watch of your iron during menstruation can help reduce the chances of getting into that suboptimal range. For females already with already lower iron levels, eating foods rich in iron during that time in your cycle can help prevent the development of anemia and potentially other reproductive related disorders such as endometriosis. 

Women wearing pajamas in a kitchen and making fresh coffee.

Can you get enough iron without eating meat?

In 2018, a report showed that Americans were consuming on average 10 ounces of meat a day. For many years, the Canadian and American federal boards of nutrition advised that meat was the best (and only) way to consume enough iron to meet the RDI.

Thankfully, the science and technology of the 21st century has debunked a lot of the stigma we’ve held onto for decades. Yes, eating 100 grams of ground beef yields 3.45 mg of iron but you need to ask yourself how much of it is absorbed and if whatever else you’re eating could be hindering the absorption as well. 

The idea that red meat is the best (and ONLY) source of iron is mostly supported by the fact there are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. 

Heme iron is derived from haemoglobin, so it’s mostly found in sources that were once living such as beef, chicken, turkey and other animals.

While heme iron is the most bioavailable for human bodies to absorb, most iron we consume (vegan or not) is in non-heme form. This is where the stigma that a vegan diet can’t support healthy levels of iron began.

A bowl of raw mushrooms on a counter.

How to Increase Iron Absorption

Meat or not, the source of your daily dietary iron doesn’t really matter unless you’re actually able to process it properly. Here are a few simple ways to increase iron absorption.

Consume More Vitamin C

This vitamin acts as a reducing agent to aid in the absorption of nonheme iron. Given this form of iron is not so readily available for the body, combining it with vitamin C increases the solubility of iron in the small intestine (some studies show up to 300%).

For this reason, vitamin C must be consumed at the same time as the iron in order to be effective. Foods such as broccoli, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, and strawberries are excellent sources of vitamin C you can easily add into any meal.

Pistachios, barley, bell peppers, kale and parsley in bowls on a countertop.

Cook with a Cast-Iron Skillet

Yep, you read that right. A study from the 80s showed that foods cooked in this type of skillet naturally fortified your food with this essential mineral. Seeing how the iron basically “leaches” into the food, why not take advantage of this bonus whilst cooking your meal? 

Time your Coffee or Tea

Reserving your morning cup of joe to the earlier hours of the day might not be a bad call. Loaded with polyphenols and tannins, these properties actually inhibit the absorption of nonheme iron, some studies say even up to 60%. Be sure to leave a few hours between your coffee (or tea) and your iron-rich meal to maximize the benefits.

Be Aware of Iron and Calcium Intake

Just like your coffee and tea, high-calcium foods shouldn’t be mixed with your iron-rich meal. Studies showed that calcium supplements reduce iron absorption by almost 50 percent.

If you’re taking a supplement for both, try taking them separately if possible to maximize absorption. However, if the iron is relatively higher than the total calcium from your food sources, you will still be able to hold onto a fairly high amount of the iron consumed. 

Kale, chickpeas, sweet potato, lemon and avocado on a counter.

Maintain B Vitamin Levels

These three musketeers hold a very tight bond. Without one, the other can’t function. Vitamin B12 helps release a certain enzyme that aids in folate’s job to promote the production of new cells.

About 1% of your red blood cells are replaced by new ones every day. Now, without enough Vitamin B12, the use of folate slows down which in turn slows the rate of new red blood cells being produced.

Without fresh red blood cells circulating, there’s not enough iron being distributed throughout your body. Fortified cereals and soy products such as tofu and tempeh are great sources of vitamin B12. As for folate, it can be found in most legumes, broccoli, brussel sprouts, beets and asparagus.

Soak, Sprout and Ferment

Preparing your grains and legumes in this manner can improve iron absorption by lowering the amount of phytates naturally present in these foods. Phytates are natural antioxidants found in most legumes and grains and can reduce iron absorption.

It’s not about avoiding these compounds entirely, just planning to eat a balanced diet throughout the day to focus on your iron intake and absorption.

Best Vegan Sources of Iron

Below is a quick overview of plant-based sources of iron. We’ll cover them in more detail below.

  • soy beans, tofu, tempeh and natto
  • lentils
  • chickpeas and black-eyed peas
  • pumpkin, sesame, hemp and flaxseeds
  • almonds, cashews, pine nuts and pistachios
  • leafy greens
  • potatoes
  • tomato paste
  • mushrooms
  • prune juice
  • mulberries
  • olives
  • amaranth, spelt, oats, quinoa
  • coconut milk
  • dark chocolate
  • molasses

Legumes

On top of being a vegan’s go-to protein source, legumes hold a very high amount of non-heme iron. As mentioned earlier, there are ways to ensure your body absorbs the most it can to meet your RDI. A cup of cooked lentils yields 6.6mg of nonheme iron.

All legumes, such as chickpeas, black-eyed peas and kidney beans contain iron but lentils and soybeans contain the highest amount.

Soybeans, tofu, tempeh and natto also contain high amounts of it, ranging from 50-85% of your RDI per cup (8.8mg and 15mg respectively).

Adding red lentils to a pot of cauliflower curry stew.

Be sure to boil or cook them before consuming to enhance the bioavailability of this mineral. Soaking and sprouting can also help improve absorption.

Great ways of incorporating these into your daily diet can be in the form of salads, stir frys, soups, homemade veggie patties and chili. 

Here are a few of my favourite recipes that highlight the use of legumes:

Grains

Fortified or not, cereals and grains can be a good source of iron in a plant-based diet. Whole grains will give you the most bang for your buck though because they haven’t been processed and stripped of other essential nutrients. When shopping look “organic”, “whole” and “unprocessed” labels on packaging for the highest iron content.

A glass container of granola on a counter.

Amaranth (5.2 mg/cup cooked), spelt (3.2 mg/cup cooked), oats (3.4 mg/cup cooked) and quinoa (2.8 mg/cup cooked) are the highest iron grains.

While most of these are actually categorized as pseudocereals, they’re free of gluten and much higher in protein than your average whole grain. 

Try using grains in smoothies, muffins, pancakes, homemade bread or in one of these recipes:

Fruits & Vegetables

Popeye knows best, spinach (and other dark leafy greens) bring it home when it comes to iron-rich veggies. If we’re comparing by weight, 100g of spinach contains from two to three times the amount found in 100g of salmon, chicken, and eggs.

Consisting of 14–36% of the RDI for one cup cooked, spinach is worth adding into your diet and luckily it’s easy to do so – toss it into soups, stir fries, smoothies, and more.

Spinach being stirred into a thick tomato stew in a pot.

Other notable fruits and veggies include:

  • Tomato paste – 3.9mg/half cup
  • Sun Dried tomatoes – 5mg/cup
  • Potatoes (with skin) – 3mg/10 ounces
  • White mushrooms (cooked) – 3mg/1 cup
  • Dried apricots – 6mg/100g
  • Acorn squash (cooked) – 2mg/1 cup
  • Olives – 3.3mg/100g

The great thing about most fruits and veggies is they can complement each other’s nutritional properties. As highlighted above, foods loaded with vitamin C can not only benefit the absorption of iron but also enhance your overall immunity.

Chocolate and Coconut

For all my sweet-tooth friends, dark chocolate probably tops the charts for the highest iron content. Per 100g, you’ll get 17mg of nonheme iron.

Bowls of chocolate, cocoa powder, dates and walnuts.

The last one I’ll mention is coconut milk. We’re talking about the the stuff right from the can — thick, creamy, and extremely high in iron.

Although it’s quite high in fat, cooking and baking with whole coconut milk can help up your iron intake by quite a bit.

Per half cup, you get 3.8mg of nonheme iron so if you put it together with fruits high in Vitamin C and a mix of whole grains, ta-da! You’ve got an iron-rich cereal breakfast concoction. 

Conclusion

The big point to take home – it’s how much you absorb, not the source of where the iron comes from.

Keep in mind the difference in how your body takes in heme and nonheme iron but taking appropriate measures to boost its bioavailability.

Whether it’s the timing of your morning coffee or eating more oranges along with your spelt cereal, taking these small measures will help you get as much benefit as possible from iron-rich foods.

Related Reads