Incorporate these 12 plant-based sources of iron into your diet to avoid a deficiency on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Iron is an essential nutrient for everyone, especially vegans and vegetarians. Since iron is most prevalent in meat, many plant-based eaters worry about getting enough iron-rich foods.
As a matter of fact, I’ve struggled with iron deficiency for years [read about my struggles in this article I wrote for SHAPE.] Because of that, I think about iron on a daily basis and take iron supplements as part of my daily routine.
But the good news is that there are plenty of plant-based iron sources that you can eat on a daily basis to avoid deficiency.
Why is Iron important?
Iron is a mineral that is responsible for the proper function of hemoglobin, a protein that helps transport oxygen in the blood. It’s necessary for growth and maintaining energy levels.
Its ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles makes it especially important for athletes. During exercise, the body sends blood to the working muscles to keep energy levels high and power you through a workout. If you’re deficient in iron, the body won’t be able to transport blood as quickly, and you may fatigue quickly.
The recommended daily intake for iron is 18 milligrams (mg). This is a bit more difficult to achieve on a plant-based diet because iron from plants is not absorbed as well as iron from animals. Without enough iron in the bloodstream, you can suffer from iron deficiency anemia. [Read more about how to detect an iron deficiency.]
It may not sound all that serious, but iron deficiency anemia is accompanied by extreme exhaustion, lightheadedness, headaches and frequent infections. Doesn’t sound fun, does it?
If you think you’re not getting enough, talk to you doctor about checking your iron levels. Too much iron in the blood can actually be toxic, so don’t take a supplement unless it’s necessary.
What’s the difference between heme and non-heme iron?
There are two types of iron:
- Heme iron: This is the iron found in meat, such as chicken, beef, pork and seafood. It comes from the blood of those animals, and heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body.
- Non-heme iron: This iron is found in plant sources and animal byproducts, such grains, fortified cereals, beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables and dairy. Non-heme iron is not as well absorbed by the body, and you need more of it to meet your iron needs.
Can vegans and vegetarians get enough iron from food?
It is absolutely possible for vegans and vegetarians to get enough iron through food alone. There are plenty of iron rich foods for plant-based eaters. Many veggies have iron, but you may need to eat more of them to get enough.
The National Institute for Healthy (NIH) recommends that vegetarians eat 1.8 times more iron than meat-eaters, which is about 32 grams. It never hurts to add more iron-rich foods to your plant-based diet.
You can also increase your absorption of plant-based iron by paying attention to the foods you eat together. Vitamin C actually enhances the absorption of iron, so eating those two nutrients together can help you body absorb this important nutrient. For example, pair iron-rich oats with Vitamin C rich strawberries.
Conversely, calcium decreases the absorption of iron. Therefore, you want to be mindful of eating foods that are high in calcium with iron-rich foods.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian and you’re worried about other nutrients you may be missing out on, make sure you check out these articles:
- Vegan & Vegetarian Sources of B12
- 12 Best Plant-Based Sources of Calcium
- 8 Best Vegan Proteins For Athletes
12 Plant-Based Sources of Iron
1. Chickpeas: 1/2 cup, 1.5 milligrams iron (mg) (8.3% daily value (DV))
A half cup of chickpeas contains about 8% of your daily iron needs. Not to mention that chickpeas are a good source of plant-based protein for muscles and fiber for digestion and heart healthiness.
I love to add chickpeas to everything from salads to grain bowl to baked goods. Here are some chickpea recipes to try to add more plant-based iron to your diet:
- Crunchy Roasted Chickpeas Two Ways
- Spiced Chickpea Veggie Burger
- Spiced Chickpea Wrap with Lemon Dill Yogurt Sauce
2. Spinach: 2 cups raw packed, 1.4 mg iron (7.7% DV)
Dark leafy greens, especially spinach, are one of the best sources of vegan iron. As an added bonus, they also contribute plant-based calcium to the diet for healthy bones.
Not to mention that leafy greens are also full of Vitamin C, folate and other nutrients. Get the scoop on leafy greens here and use spinach in unique ways with the recipes below.
- Spring Strawberry Salad
- Vegetable Barley Soup
- 20 Vegetarian & Vegan Recipes with Leafy Greens
- Sweet Potato & Kale Quesadilla
3. Oats: 1 cup, 1.7 mg iron (9.4% DV)
Oats are quick to cook, satisfying, and extremely versatile. One cup has almost 10% of your daily iron needs and can be a hearty breakfast or snack. Plus, a 1/2 cup of oats contains 5 grams of plant-based protein, and it’s a good source of fiber.
If you’re not sure what kind of oats to eat, pick the one you like best. All types of oats are nutritionally equal. The only difference is the way they are cut. Below are some oat-licious recipes to try.
- Green Tea Overnight Oats
- Tahini Maple Oat Bites
- Creamy Coconut Milk Steel Cut Oatmeal with Clementines
4. Tofu: ½ cup, 3 mg iron (17% DV)
Vegetarians and vegans are no strangers to tofu, and that’s a good thing because this soy based protein is a good source of meatless iron. Plus, tofu is a nutritional powerhouse. It’s low in calories, yet rich in protein, plant-based calcium, fiber and other minerals.
Cooking tofu is easy–it takes on the flavor of any marinade, so you can use it in basically any dish. I personally like it in stir-fries or other dinners. Try any of these recipes below to get your tofu fix.
- Vegan Tofu Nuggets
- Easy BBQ Tofu Salad Bowl
- Butter Lettuce & Corn Salad with Tofu Croutons & Lime Vinaigrette
- 17 Tofu Recipes For Every Meal Of The Day
5. Lentils: 1/2 cup cooked, 3.17 mg iron (18% DV)
Lentils, along with other legumes, are a great source of iron especially for vegetarians or vegans! Just half a cup of cooked lentils provides almost 20% of the iron you need in a day, as well as plenty of fiber and protein.
For plant-based eaters who are worried about feeling hungry all the time, the nutrients in these tiny legumes help keep you full for hours. Whip up a batch of lentils at the start of the week and add them to salads, grain bowls and soups. Check out some of my favorite lentil recipes below.
- Greek Lentil Power Bowl
- Moroccan Lentil Soup
- Lentil Veggie “Meatballs”
- Zucchini & Lentil Tacos with Radish Salsa
6. Potatoes: 1 medium potato, 1.87 mg iron (14% DV)
News flash– potatoes aren’t bad for you! As a matter of fact, they are a healthy pre-workout carb, and they pack in serious iron and potassium. Keep the skin on for an added fiber boost!
Regular old white potatoes have more iron than sweet potatoes, but both are a good option on a plant-based diet. If you’re a fan of potato wedges, make them at home in your own oven! These Dill Roasted Potato Wedges are a favorite in my house.
7. Cashews: 1 ounce, 1.72 mg iron (13% DV)
Although cashews may not be the first nut on your list, they contain quite a bit of non-heme iron. Cashews are also rich and creamy, meaning that they are the base for many luscious vegan sauces. Whether you’re adding them to smoothies, salads, or eating alone, this crunchy nut helps you meet your daily dose of iron.
I like to add chopped cashews to roasted veggies for a contrasting texture. But you can also use them in a variety of ways, like in the plant-based recipes below.
- Green Beans with Caramelized Onions and Cashews
- Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce
- No Bake Frozen Blueberry Bars
8. Edamame: 1 cup, 2 mg iron (11% DV)
Aside from being delicious, these green soybeans are packed with iron, protein and fiber. Edamame is well known for being a sushi appetizer, but you might not know that you can easily make edamame at home.
Buy a bag of frozen edamame and keep them on hand for when hunger strikes. Microwave this plant-based snack at anytime for a protein-rich snack or side dish.
Or save yourself the money and time and ditch the takeout. You can have a homemade sushi night with this Vegan Quinoa Sushi Bowl.
9. Sesame Seeds: 2 tablespoons, 1.2 mg iron (7% DV)
While sesame seeds aren’t always on people’s radar, they should be for their iron, protein and healthy fat content. Although nuts get all the love, seeds are a really easy way to add nutrients to any meal.
Not only do sesame seeds add a nice crunch to salads, ground sesame seeds make tahini–a staple in hummus or an allergy friendly alternative to nut butters. Try sesame seeds as a topping to a Vegan Sushi Bowl or use tahini in the recipes below.
- Tahini Maple Oat Bites
- Green Power Crunch Salad with Lemon Tahini Dressing
- Roasted Garlic & Turmeric Hummus
10. Flax Seeds: 2 tablespoons, 1.2 mg iron (7% DV)
Another healthy seed to add to the list– flax seeds have gained some serious popularity over the last few years and for good reason! They contain healthy omega-3 fats, fiber and plant-based iron. Blend them in a smoothie or mix into your yogurt!
11. Beets: 1 cup, 1.34 mg iron (7% DV)
This royal purple root veggie is packed with antioxidants and provides a nice serving of iron. If you like a savory earthy taste, then beets are a must on your plant-based diet. Not to mention that beet juice also has some added benefits for athletes. The nitrates in beets help deliver oxygen to working muscles quickly, meaning that they can improve athletic performance.
Beets pair really nicely with citrus in this vibrant fall quinoa salad.
12. White Mushrooms: 1 cup cooked, 2.7 mg iron (15% DV)
With their meaty texture, mushrooms are often as a substitute for animal products in many recipes. Not only do mushrooms have a nice bite, they are also an excellent source of vegan iron. Mushrooms are also one of the only sources of Vitamin D in the produce aisle.
Throw mushrooms into a stir-fry, salad or make these Freezer Mushroom Breakfast Burritos.