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Before we dive into the iron-rich foods for vegetarians, let’s define what iron is and why it’s essential for our health.
Iron is an essential mineral that our bodies need primarily to produce energy and build red blood cells, which carry oxygen.
An iron deficiency may result in fatigue, weakness, depression, hair loss, brittle nails, and decreased ability to fight infection.
Although the amount of iron each person needs differs based on gender and age, the daily iron requirement for men and post-menopausal women is 8 mg. This number increases to 18 mg for menstruating women, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is mostly found in animal products like meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods and fortified foods.
Heme iron is more bioavailable than non-heme iron; hence vegetarians are more concerned about their iron intake. But don’t worry, vegetarians can obtain enough iron with a well-planned diet.
Check out our iron-rich foods list for vegetarians and see how you can pair them to get the iron you need for a healthy body.
Top 10 Iron-Rich Foods
Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and beans are great sources of iron for vegetarians.
One cooked cup of each provides the following:
Lentils: 6.6 mg of iron;
Chickpeas: 4.7 mg of iron;
Black beans: 3.6 mg of iron.
In addition to their iron content, legumes are excellent sources of plant protein and fiber. To find more on plant protein sources, check our article on Vegetarian High Protein Foods.
2. Soybeans and Soy Products
Soybeans and foods made from soybeans such as tofu or tempeh are good sources of iron. They are widely consumed and preferred among vegetarians since they are also good protein sources.
Soybeans contain 8.8 mg of iron per cup cooked, whereas tofu provides 6.8 mg of iron per cup, and tempeh contains 4.5 mg of iron per cup.
3. Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard greens, and cabbage serve as non-heme iron sources for vegetarians. For example, a cup of cooked spinach contains 6.4 mg of iron and swiss chard contains 4 mg of iron per cup cooked.
Here is an important tip to remember; You should cook spinach before you eat because when it’s consumed raw, iron in spinach is blocked by oxalates! You can saute or boil them for a couple of minutes and eat them straight with a sprinkle of salt and pepper or put them in soups or omelets.
Whole grains contain a good amount of iron. However, make sure to get the unprocessed ones as processing removes parts of the grain that contains most of the iron. The more processed the grain is, the less iron it contains.
Although technically a seed, quinoa is classified as whole grain and is a good source of plant protein and non-heme iron. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 2.8 mg of iron. Moreover, since it’s naturally gluten-free, it’s highly preferred by people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Other grains with a good amount of iron include teff and amaranth with 5.2 mg of iron per cup cooked. Spelt contains 3.2 mg of iron per cup cooked and oats contain 3.4 mg of iron per cup.
Here are some delicious iron-rich oatmeal recipes for a great and satisfying breakfast.
5. Dark Chocolate
Although we don’t need a reason to eat chocolate, I think we have a great one now ? A 28 gram serving of 70-85% dark chocolate provides 3.4 mg of iron.
However, remember that not all chocolate is created equal. The benefits of chocolate come from its cocoa content. Therefore, it’s best to consume chocolate with a minimum of 70% cocoa for the highest iron content you can get.
6. Blackstrap Molasses
Very common in Eastern countries, less common in the West – but very much worth knowing about all the same! Blackstrap molasses provides 7.2 mg of iron per 2 tablespoons. You can have it in your porridge or mix in yogurt for some added sweetness with health benefits. However, make sure you’re buying the blackstrap type since other molasses don’t provide this much iron.
Certain types of mushrooms are rich in iron. For example, one cup of morel mushrooms provides 8 mg of iron and one cooked cup of white mushrooms contains 2.7 mg of iron.
Other mushroom types such as portobello or shiitake don’t have as much. So if you want to use mushrooms to increase the iron content in your diet, it’s best to choose morel or white mushrooms.
8. Prune Juice
Although mostly known for their mild laxative effect to relieve constipation, prunes are also a good source of iron. One cup of prune juice contains 3 mg of iron. You can have prune juice straight or in your smoothies.
Certain seeds serve as iron-rich sources. The best thing about them is that they are easy to add to your diet. You can sprinkle them on your salads, porridge, smoothies, or yogurt.
The seeds with the highest iron content are pumpkin, sesame, hemp, chia, and flax seeds. 1 oz (28 g) of each contains the following:
Pumpkin seeds: 2.5 mg of iron
Sesame seeds (also in the form of tahini): 2.7 mg of iron
Hemp seeds 2.3 mg of iron
Chia seeds 2.2 mg of iron
Flax seeds 1.6 mg of iron
Combining tahini with chickpeas in a hummus recipe is a great way to boost your iron intake. Check our simple yet delicious hummus recipe for starters.
10. Nuts and Nut Butters
Some nuts are also good sources of non-heme iron. The ones with the highest iron content are cashews, pine nuts, almonds, and macadamia nuts.
These nuts provide between 1-1.6 mg of iron per 1 oz (28 g) serving. You can eat them as a filling snack or sprinkle them on your meals.
Keep in mind that roasting damages the nutrients in nuts, including iron. Therefore, it’s best to choose their raw or unblanched types.
As for nut butter, you should favor 100% natural varieties and avoid added sugar, salt, or oils.
One important thing to consider while eating iron-rich foods is how to increase iron absorption and how not to inhibit iron absorption.
Iron absorption is enhanced by Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) intake. One study mentioned that taking 100 mg of vitamin C with an iron-rich meal increased iron absorption by 67%. You can drink ½-1 cup of orange juice with your breakfast to enhance iron absorption in your diet.
You can also pair your iron-rich foods with other sources of vitamin C such as fresh bell peppers, strawberries, kiwifruit, cabbage, tomatoes, and fresh broccoli to increase your body’s absorption.
Large amounts of calcium, bran fiber, phytates, and tannins can inhibit non-heme iron absorption.
Therefore, it’s best to avoid having milk or milk products, taking calcium supplements, eating bran foods, drinking coffee, tea, cocoa or red wine with your meals. Instead, enjoy these between meals.
Here are some meal pairing inspirations for you to put vitamin C and iron side by side to increase iron absorption.
You can top your cooked oatmeal with berries and tahini, and serve with a glass of orange juice. You can add broccoli and cabbage to a tofu stir-fry or add bell peppers to a bean chili.
Alternatively, you can prepare a bowl of green salad with boiled chickpeas and add some strawberries and kiwifruit to it.
In conclusion, iron is an essential nutrient for the body’s function. Many plant foods that vegetarians prefer to consume contain non-heme iron.
Although non-heme iron is harder for the body to absorb compared to heme iron foods, you can improve iron absorption by eating foods that are rich in vitamin C.
By carefully planning your diet and knowing how certain foods can enhance or inhibit iron absorption, you can easily meet your daily iron requirement with a vegetarian meal plan.