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8 Plant-Based Foods High in Iron

Updated: Feb 3, 2023



When going plant-based or vegan, there are usually three top questions that come to mind:

  • Where do I get my protein?

  • How do I get enough calcium without drinking milk?

  • Will I get enough iron?

These are valid questions! After all, most of us have been trained to think that meat should be the center of the plate, milk should be consumed with each meal, and you need meat to get enough iron. These notions come from the brilliant marketing from the meat and dairy industries and, actually, couldn't be further from the truth. Most people get more than enough protein on a plant-based diet. And, there are so many delicious plant-based foods that are packed with calcium and iron.


Today we're going to focus on iron and how vegans are at no more risk of iron deficiency compared to omnivores and carnivores. (For more details on calcium and protein visit 8 Calcium-Rich Plant-Based Foods and 47 Protein-Filled Plant-Based Foods.)


Are vegans prone to anemia?

Recent research shows that vegans have higher iron intake than vegetarians or meat eaters. What's more, vegans may be even more efficient at absorbing iron from foods. This may be in part due to vegans having lower iron stores compared to meat eaters. When your iron stores are on the lower side, you absorb more. One important point is that, although vegans tend to have lower iron stores, the prevalence of anemia is not any higher in vegans compared to meat eaters. Actually, having iron stores on the low normal side may even be preferable because too much iron has been associated with heart disease and cancer risk.


How much iron is needed?


The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for all age groups of men and postmenopausal women is 8 milligrams a day; the RDA for premenopausal women is 18 milligrams a day; the RDA during pregnancy is 27 milligrams and lactation is 10 milligrams a day.


Some experts suggests that vegetarian and vegan iron needs may be higher than the RDA because non-heme iron (the type of iron found in plant-based foods) is not absorbed as well as heme iron (the type of iron found in animal tissue) due to natural compounds, called phytic acid, present in plant foods. For this reason, they suggest that vegetarians and vegans could require as much as 1.8 times more iron than those who eat meat.


However, these guidelines do not factor the effect that certain plant-based foods have on iron’s absorbability or the fact that lower iron stores found in plant-based eaters may enhance iron absorption, which brings us to the next point ...


How to increase iron absorption from plants


The primary plant-based culprit interfering with iron absorption is phytic acid (also known as phytates). While many plants are abundant in iron, their iron absorption can vary depending on the phytic acid content, which binds to iron, making it less available for your body to use.


Let’s first clear up any misconceptions—phytic acid is not a bad thing. It is actually an antioxidant that has been associated with a lower risk of cancer. It is naturally abundant in whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds (also high iron foods). The key is to minimize its effect on binding to minerals like iron and zinc so that their absorption is maximized, which may actually be something that you are naturally doing.


There are several ways to minimize phytic acid binding to iron and maximize iron absorption:

  1. Consume foods high in vitamin C (tomatoes, oranges, peppers, potatoes, broccoli) with iron-rich foods.

  2. Cook iron-rich foods with allium vegetables (garlic, onions, shallots).

  3. Consume iron-rich foods with foods rich in carotenoids (carrots, sweet potatoes, leafy greens).

  4. Consume iron-rich fermented foods (for example, iron in fermented sourdough is better absorbed than traditional bread).

Vitamin C



Consuming foods high in vitamin C along with plant-based iron-rich foods can increase iron absorption up to five-fold! Good sources of iron include beans, lentils, spinach, bok choy, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, tahini, prunes, peas, and more. Good sources of vitamin C include broccoli, tomatoes, citrus, avocados, red peppers, strawberries, guava, and more.


Examples of high iron and high vitamin C combinations include tacos with black beans and salsa, oatmeal and blueberries, lentils and sweet potatoes, or a spinach salad with orange slices.


Beta Carotene



Studies have shown that carotenoids like beta carotene, the plant-based version of vitamin A, can increase iron absorption by up to three times.


Carotenoids are a large group of compounds that give orange, yellow and red plants their color. There are more than 600 types of carotenoids and include some with which you may be familiar: beta carotene, lycopene, zeaxanthin, and lutein. Leafy greens are also high in carotenoids (as well as iron so they're a two for one!). Foods high in carotenoids include sweet potatoes, yams, leafy greens, watermelon, cantaloupe, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, mangoes and oranges. Many of these foods are also high in vitamin C.


Allium Vegetables


Do you cook with onion and garlic? Not only do these allium vegetables provide tons of flavor and nutrition, but they also may increase iron’s absorption in plants by seven times! Add garlic and onion to soups and stews that include legumes, use them in stir fries with spinach, add minced garlic to your cooking water when cooking quinoa to give it flavor and to increase iron absorption. Allium vegetables include garlic, red onion, white onion, yellow onion, green onion, and scallions.



8 Plant-Based Foods That Are Packed With Iron


As you saw above, many plant-based foods are rich in iron and iron-supporting nutrients. Below are just a handful of rich plant-based iron sources to start adding to your diet today.


1. Lentils: 1 cooked cup = 6.6 mg of iron

Bonus: Not only are lentils packed with iron but they're also packed with protein and fiber! Cook them from fresh (they're one of the only legumes that don't require soaking and cook in less than 30 minutes), purchase them already steamed, or keep canned lentils in the cabinet for last minute dishes. Add them to salad, stir fries, tacos, or grain bowels. They also make yummy Lentil Burgers!


2. Cannellini beans: 1 cooked cup = 5 mg of iron per cup

Beans are all the rage and for good reason. They're packed with protein and fiber, and also good sources of calcium and iron. Basically, they're a plant-powered superstar. Enjoy them as bean burgers, in soup, or mixed with pasta. This Slow Cooker Vegan Sausage Soup with Greens and Beans is one of my personal faves!


3. Tofu: 1.2 cup = 6.64 mg of iron

Tofu is another superhero in the plant-based kingdom, although soy is probably the most polarizing plant. If you're still on the fence about soy, make sure to check out Myth Buster: Soy is Good for You. Bonus that soy is also an excellent protein source, and packed with calcium and phytonutrients that have been shown to be beneficial in protecting against breast and prostate cancers.


4. Amaranth: 1 cooked cup = 5 mg of iron

This ancient grain is good for gut health, heart health, brain health and more. It's power-packed with 5 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein per cup! Maybe it's time to switch up the oats (just for variety, because oats are also an excellent source of iron)? It makes a tasty and comforting morning porridge!


5. Baked potatoes: A medium potato provides 2 mg iron (with the skin!).

Baked potatoes often get a bad reputation for their quick releasing carbohydrate load. However, when you eat them as a part of a balanced meal, the carbohydrates will release much more slowly. Plus, baked potatoes are so good for you! The skin is where much of the iron is housed so make sure to include it. Potatoes are also a good source of fiber and an excellent source of vitamin C.


6. Spinach: 1 cup = 6.4 mg of iron

Though it is a rich source of iron, it is not always the best source because of the oxalates (another compound that can bind to iron) inhibiting the iron absorption in the iron. Try pairing spinach with a source of vitamin C to increase iron absorption! P.S. Leafy greens that are low in oxalates and also good sources of iron include kale and collards.


7. Dried Apricots: 1/2 cup of dried apricot contain 2 mg of iron

Chop them up and add them to salads, trail mixes, or your morning cereal. Dried dates and prunes are close seconds with .75 mg per half cup.

8. Dark Chocolate: 1.5-ounce serving = 3.5 mg of iron

Do we really need to encourage you to have some dark chocolate? ;) Studies show that 1–1.5 ounces a day can be beneficial when included as part of a whole food diet. Learn all about dark chocolate here and here.


Bottom line

Don't fret if you are vegan, plant-forward, or fully plant-based, there are lots of plant-based foods that are excellent sources of iron. Consuming a variety of plants will help to ensure adequate iron intake. In summary, practice these things to maximize iron absorption:

  • Space out iron-rich foods throughout the day to help increase absorption.

  • Eat non-heme iron foods with vitamin C to increase absorption by five times!

  • Eat non-heme iron foods alongside foods high in beta carotene to increase iron absorption three-fold.

  • Cook non-heme iron foods with allium vegetables (onions, garlic, and shallots) to increase iron absorption seven-fold.

  • Avoid drinking coffee, tea or red wine when consuming high iron meals as they may inhibit iron absorption. Try to consume coffee and tea two hours before or after eating meals rich in iron.

  • Cook with an iron skillet to increase absorption.

  • Take calcium supplements separately and avoid eating calcium-rich foods when eating an iron-rich meal.

  • Try soaking or fermentation. Phytates in some iron-rich plant-based foods decrease the bioavailability but soaking can help to increase absorption and decrease phytates.

Looking for help adding more plants to your diet? Visit purely planted membership program options to get plant-forward or plant-based meal plans and recipes delivered to your inbox each week!


Download this handy handout for more info on iron!

Iron-Consumer
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Download PDF • 119KB

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