plant based sources of iron
Education, Food, Nutrient Basics, Supplements, Vitamins and Minerals

Plant-based Sources of Iron

Being a vegan or a vegetarian means that you have to be conscious of the foods that you are eating. While there is a vast world of nutrients present in plant-based foods, there are a few nutrients that are less readily available. One in particular is iron. So let’s take a look at plant-based sources of iron.

The reason why we are so interested in iron is because we can easily become deficient. Most often when we eliminate animal meat, we fail to pay attention to increasing our consumption of plant-based food sources of iron, leading to a host of symptoms. For many, this is a leading cause of fatigue, hair loss, brittle nails, and anxiety, so let’s remedy the situation by boosting our plant-based iron!

 

plant based sources of iron

 

What does Iron do?

Iron is one of the most abundant minerals in the earth’s crust and it vital to many functions in the human body. The following are its prime roles:

  • Transports oxygen in the blood.
  • Hundreds of enzymes contain iron or need it as a cofactor.
  • A component of enzymes needed for energy metabolism, amino acid production, and muscle function.
  • Optimal immune function requires iron.
  • Iron is essential for optimal brain and nervous system development and function.
  • Iron is involved in producing the protective covering, or myelin sheath, that surrounds nerve cells.
  • Needed to produce neurotransmitters.

 

Signs you are Iron Deficient:

  • Fatigue
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Heavy periods
  • You’re pale
  • Shortness of breath
  • Anemia
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Headaches
  • Cravings for dirt, ice, clay
  • Anxiety
  • Hair loss
  • Low thyroid function
  • You’re vegan or vegetarian
  • Pregnancy
  • Celiac or Inflammatory bowel disease

 

Types of Iron

Heme Iron: most heme iron is part of the hemoglobin and myoglobin (oxygen transporting proteins) and is only found in animal tissue. Highly bioavailable (absorbable) to the body.

Non-Heme Iron: Type of iron found in plant-foods, less bioavailable.

 

Iron Absorption

Effects of GI function on Iron Absorption: In order for iron to be properly absorbed by the body, you need adequate stomach acid or hydrochloric acid (HCL). Since natural HCL production begins to decline after age 21, most people do not have adequate HCL to properly absorb iron. In addition, poor food habits such as excess amounts of fried foods, animal meat and processed food as well as the use of antacids also decrease HCL production.

 

Image by Leo Druker

 

Enhancing Iron Absorption: Vitamin C greatly increases the ability of iron to be absorbed by the body. Therefore, it is vital for vegetarians and vegans to have a good supply of natural vitamin C in their diet. You can choose to take an iron supplement that also contains Vitamin C, or you can boost your Vitamin C intake by eating foods rich in the vitamin. This includes citrus fruits, the superberry camu camu, papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi, cantaloupe and cauliflower.

 

Inhibiting Iron Absorption: There are a few nutrients that inhibit or reduce the ability of the body to take in Iron (leading to deficiency). If you are iron deficient, it is best to minimize the consumption of the following until iron levels are normalized.

–    Polyphenols: found in tea, coffee, dark chocolate and some berries

–    Oxalates: found in spinach, beet greens, okra, parsley, leeks and collard greens

–    Calcium: synthetic sources of calcium supplements

 

Recommended Amounts

While these dosages are a helpful guideline, I recommend just focusing on including iron- rich food sources into every meal, combined with a natural source of Vitamin C such as a whole-foods supplement or from fruits and vegetables.

Based on recommendations from The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine:

Males

  • 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
  • 14 to 18 years: 11 mg/day
  • Age 19 and older: 8 mg/day

Females


  • 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
  • 14 to 18 years: 15 mg/day
  • 19 to 50 years: 18 mg/day
  • 51 and older: 8 mg/day

 

Image by FotoosVanRobin

Image by FotoosVanRobin

 

Iron Supplements: While I prefer that you get your iron from your food, in some cases, such as heavy menstrual bleeding and anemia, it is necessary to use a supplement.

Be careful of what supplement you are purchasing. Not all iron supplements are created equal, with some forms causing nausea, and others leading to toxicity in the body. So how do you choose? Look for a plant-based, whole food source of iron. I personally like the supplement called ErthyroPro by Premier Research Labs. I love this produce because it derives its iron from natural food sources such as red beet roots, stabilized rice bran and bilberry. It also contains synergists and co-factors that help to increase the iron absorption and utilization by the body. No synthetics, no additives and no preservatives.

Plant-based Sources of Iron: While increasing your iron with a supplement is the quickest way to raise levels, incorporating food sources is recommended as well. I like to add the following plant-based sources of iron into my diet daily. As you can see there are many plant foods rich in iron, making it easier to get your daily recommendation than you might think. Eat up!

 

Plant-Based Sources of Iron

FoodAmountIron (mg) 
Blackstrap Molasses2 Tbsp7.2
Lentils, cooked1 cup6.6
Spinach, cooked1 cup6.4
Quinoa, cooked1 cup6.3
Spirulina1 tsp5
Tempeh1 cup4.8
Lima Beans, cooked1 cup4.4
Pumpkin Seeds1 ounce4.2
Swiss Chard, cooked1 cup4.0
Black Beans, cooked1 cup3.6
Pinto Beans, cooked1 cup3.5
Chickpeas, cooked1 cup3.2
Potato1 large3.2
Kidney Beans,cooked1 cup3.0
Tahini2 Tbsp2.7
Peas, cooked1 cup2.5
Black-eyed peas1 cup2.3
Cashews¼ cup2.1
Brussels sprouts1 cup1.9

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6 Comments

  • Reply Lin September 15, 2012 at 3:38 am

    Hello!

    I like the name of this Blog, because I have been reading more about nutrition after being diagnosed with anemia, and keep seeing “KALE” pop up in every article!

    I am a vegetarian marathon runner who finally decided to get blood results after spending the past three years declining to my current state in which I am barely able to run. My lab results were pretty dire (Hemoglobin: 8.5, Ferritin “<1" – undetectable).

    I had two questions in relation to your helpful article here if you ever have a moment!:

    1) Is it possible to normalize the units in your chart that lists one ounce of pumpkin seeds as having 4.2mg. (I am just wondering because many of the other foods are listed per cup, and I wanted to compare pumpkin seeds with the rest.)

    2) Spirulina is listed in your chart. I had to look that up. Never heard of it, and I have read several papers about foods high in iron. What exactly is it, and is it available in most supermarkets?

    3) I love dark chocolate, and noticed that each relatively-thin one-inch square piece has 5%DV of iron! However, as you say, it may contain polyphenols, which decrease the absorptivity power. Do you think one of these processes overrides the other, or is dark chocolate pretty much useless as an iron-rich food? Also, my package does not describe whether or how much polyphenols it contains: Is that to be expected, and if so, where can I find that information?

    4) I have read conflicting information about whether whole grains are good for iron or not. I suppose this might be similar to the dark chocolate question, but as a nutritionist, do you think it could still be a useful food for an anemic person like myself, or does the decreased absorption it cause render the high iron content it comes with useless?

    That was a lot of questions. If you ever have a moment to answer any of them, I would check back to learn more! Thanks!

    • lauren
      Reply lauren September 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm

      Hi Lin, pumpkin seeds are great to eat daily for iron, but I would try to get a pumpkin butter in order to get a high concentrate. As for the spirulina, that is a superfood you will have to purchase from a specialty health food store or online. Dark chocolate – polyphenols range depending on the type of chocolate, not only dark vs light but also the quality. I would only consider using raw cacao powder in this case. As for whole grains, I wouldn’t focus on this as a main source for iron, but do include it in the diet as an adjunct. Finally, I would suggest using a product called ErythroPro by Premier Research Labs – this is my favorite iron supplement which is derived from whole foods – beets – and therefore does not contain the risk of synthetic iron in the body (acting as a pro-oxidant).

  • Reply Sandy July 24, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    I love the information provided about iron but I am confused about the name of the site being “The Holy Kale” and the lack of information about kale as an iron source. It is not on the list of vegan sources of iron. Does it matter if kale is eaten raw or cooked?

    • lauren
      Reply lauren August 4, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      Hello Sandy, Kale does contain iron, but it is not as rich in iron as the other sources mentioned. In addition, the iron from kale is most available to the body when the kale is cooked.

  • Reply Adriana Z-F October 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Do you have a recommendation for an Iron supplement that is gluten-free? Isn’t the one above gluten-containing due to the barley?
    Thanks!

    • lauren
      Reply lauren October 27, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      Hi Adriana – it contains barely grass which does not contain gluten in this instance. Checked with the manufacturer.

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