What are the Best Vegan Iron Sources?

What are the Best Vegan Iron Sources?


What are high iron vegan foods for my plant-based diet? How do I ensure I am getting enough iron rich vegan foods every day? And what about a vegan iron supplement? I’m answering your top questions on the best vegan iron sources.

One of the top concerns among people who eat mostly plant-based or vegan diets is the mineral iron. I get so many questions about this essential mineral, and many people focused on plant-based living struggle with meeting their iron needs. While it’s completely possible (and very common) to eat a healthy plant-based diet that meets your iron needs (I’ve been doing it for nearly 2 decades), it is important to make sure you are balancing your plate to include iron-rich foods every day. 

Oats are a good source of iron.

Why Is Iron So Important?

Iron is an essential mineral that is key in red blood cell function. Iron is found in the hemoglobin of red blood cells, and plays a critical role in immune function, DNA synthesis, and oxygen transport. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, our bodies need iron to obtain energy needed to function. A handful of symptoms associated with iron deficiency include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and headache.1 People who are more susceptible to low iron levels include women ages 19 to 50 years old and pregnant women. Iron is also essential for healthy brain development in children. There are two types of iron that are present in food: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is from animal sources and is absorbed by the body more efficiently than non-heme iron, which is from plant sources. Some plant sources of iron include dark leafy greens, beans, whole grains, and fortified cereals. You can increase the absorption of iron by eating iron-rich sources along with foods that contain vitamin C, such as bell peppers, strawberries, kiwi, oranges, limes, and lemons.1 

Dark leafy greens are a good source of iron. Try this recipe for Mandarin Quinoa and Kale Bowl.

Are Vegans at Risk for Iron Deficiency? 

So, the question remains, are vegans more at risk for iron deficiency? Studies have suggested  that iron deficiency is not any more common among vegan individuals than non-vegan individuals.2 However, one study found low iron status is more common in vegetarian women than vegetarian men due to their menstrual cycle.3 While it may mean that vegetarian women are at the highest risk for iron deficiency, it doesn’t make it impossible to achieve sufficient amounts of iron. Low iron status is not an issue if you eat well-balanced meals that contain iron rich foods. Thus, it’s not about whether or not meat is being consumed, it’s more about being mindful about the foods you are choosing each day. The good news is that the best sources of iron in plant-based diets are foods you should be including every day: dark leafy greens, citrus, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. 

Increase absorption of iron with vitamin C rich foods, such as in this recipe for Fresh Orange Tofu with Brown Rice.

Bioavailability of Plant-Based Iron

Though it’s easy to get enough plant-based iron, studies have shown that the reason why some vegetarians are more at risk for iron deficiency is because non-heme iron, found in plant foods, has lower bioavailability in comparison to heme iron, found in animal products.3 Bioavailability is associated with nutrient absorption in the body. Plant foods generally have lower absorption rates because of compounds found in plants that can interfere with absorption. Certain plant foods that contain phytates, calcium, and polyphenols can interfere with the absorption of iron. Note: Many of these compounds, such as fiber and polyphenols, also have benefits to the body! So, the Institute of Medicine recommends vegetarians and vegan double their amount of iron intake in comparison to non-vegetarians.3  

Keep in mind that you can increase your bioavailability of iron by consuming it with vitamin C-rich produce (a practice common in a healthy plant-based diet), and soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking foods. You can also increase your iron intake by cooking with cast iron cookware–learn more here

Focus on more plant-based iron sources, such as this recipe for Pan Fried Tofu with Apricot Moroccan Sauce.

Plant Iron Can Be Better 

Here’s something to keep in mind. Can too much heme iron be harmful? The consumption of excess iron from the foods you eat or supplements can be dangerous because high doses can lead to constipation, nausea, upset stomach, and vomiting.4 If consumed at extremely high doses this can cause more serious, life-threatening effects such as convulsions, organ failure, coma, and potentially death.4 When your body absorbs too much iron, excess iron has the potential to be stored in parts of the body that can cause diseases, heart issues, and diabetes; this is referred to as hemochromatosis.5 The occurrence of too much iron in the body can be a result of the consumption of too much heme iron. Since highly absorbable heme iron comes from animal sources, recent science has linked it with higher risk of chronic disease. Seems like lower bioavailability can actually be protective in the case of iron! 

Vegan Iron Supplement

You can do everything right–balance your plate with iron-rich foods–and still struggle with keeping your iron status (measured by hemoglobin in a blood test) in a healthy range. Or you could have higher iron needs because of conditions like pregnancy or a diagnosis. In these cases, it may be beneficial to take a vegan iron supplement. When choosing the best vegan iron supplement, make sure that it doesn’t provide over 100% of the RDA, and look for reputable brands that conduct third party evaluations on their products. One brand that has received positive evaluations by ConsumerLab.com is Life Extension Iron Protein Plus. Learn more about my vegan diet supplement recommendations here

Include more beans and greens in your diet–try this recipe for Penne with White Beans and Greens.

Six Tips to Meet Iron Needs 

  1. Incorporate whole grains, pulses, leafy greens, tofu, and enriched cereals in your diet every day. 
  2. Enhance absorption of iron by soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking beans, grains and seeds.
  3. Add foods that contain vitamin C with your iron sources to improve absorption. Try broccoli, citrus, bell peppers, spinach, tomatoes, and brussel sprouts. 
  4. Lower intake of tea, coffee, and cocoa (which contain phytates, calcium, and polyphenols) while you’re eating iron rich foods to reduce inhibition of iron absorption. 
  5. Eat well-balanced meals throughout the day that include plenty of iron-rich foods (see below). 
  6. If you do eat animal foods, reduce intake of high heme sources of iron (red meats).
Plant-Based Iron Food Sources  Serving Size  Iron (mg)
Breakfast cereals, fortified with iron  1 cup  18*
Bran flakes  ¾ cup  8
Oats, cooked  1 cup  7
Lentils, cooked  1 cup  7
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 6
Bread, whole wheat 1 slice  6
Dark chocolate  1.5 ounces  5
Sundried tomatoes  1 cup 5
Garbanzo beans, cooked 1 cup 5
Soybeans, cooked  1 cup  5
Tempeh  1 cup  5
Lima beans, cooked 1 cup 4
Navy beans, cooked 1 cup  4
Swiss chard, cooked 1 cup 4
Kidney beans, cooked  1 cup 4
Dried peaches  ½ cup 3
Tahini 2 tablespoons  3
Peas, cooked  1 cup 3
Prune juice  1 cup 3
Quinoa, cooked  1 cup 3
Tofu, firm  ½ cup 3
Tomato paste  ¼ cup
Pumpkin seeds  1 ounce 
Barley, cooked  1 cup 
Bok choy, cooked 1 cup
Raisins  ½ cup 
Cashews, raw  1 ounce  2
Potato 1 medium
Wheat germ ¼ cup  2
Pine nuts 1 ounce  2
Vegetable soup 1 cup  2*
Veggie burger  1 patty 2*
Sunflower seeds  ¼ cup 2
Butternut squash  1 cup, cubes  1
Molasses 1 tablespoon  1
Pistachios, dry roasted  1 ounce 
Source: USDA; *nutritional content may vary based on product 

 

For more information on planning a well-balanced plant-based diet, check out these essential blogs: 

References

  1. https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/types-of-vitamins-and-nutrients/iron 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6367879/ 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723975/ 
  4. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-Consumer/ 
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hemochromatosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351443 

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