Whether you’re thinking about eating less meat or have been vegan for a long time, iron should be on your radar. Iron, like other nutrients, is a multitasker. It’s necessary for your red blood cells to transfer oxygen, and if you don’t get enough of it, you may feel exhausted and distracted, and you may get sick more frequently than you’d like. We normally think of meat when we think of iron, but there are lots of vegan iron sources you may utilize to supplement your diet.
What is the function of iron in the body?
Iron is a mineral that your body needs to perform a variety of critical functions.
Your body would be unable to produce hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that distributes oxygen throughout the body, without iron. It is also required for myoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen to the muscles. Iron also helps with immunological function, pregnancy health, energy levels, and physical performance.
If you don’t obtain enough iron, your body will first deplete the iron stored in your liver, bone marrow, spleen, and muscle. In the long run, it may result in iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which your red blood cells shrink and are unable to carry as much oxygen.
The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include fatigue, weakness, fuzzy memory, and gastrointestinal upset. It could also make you feel like you need to bundle up more in the winter.
“Your immune system may also be affected and you may be more prone to getting colds and other infections. You might be more sensitive to cold temperatures,” Annelie Vogt von Heselholt, DCN, RD, CSO, and founder of Dietitian Doc, tells VegNews.
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme iron. Both kinds of iron are found in meat and seafood while non-heme iron is obtained from plant-based sources. This means that you absolutely can get iron from plant foods, but one thing to be aware of is that non-heme iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body, so it’s advised that vegans and vegetarians should consume twice as much.
So, instead of 8 mg for adult men and 18 mg for adult women, someone who doesn’t eat meat is looking at a daily requirement of 16 mg and 36 mg a day, respectively. During pregnancy, that need rises to 27 mg daily.
“Also, non-heme iron is better absorbed if eaten with vitamin C-rich foods,” says Vogt von Heselholt. “So citrus fruits, strawberries, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli should be eaten alongside plant-based iron foods.”
Avoid consuming coffee or caffeinated tea with iron-rich meals if possible. Tea is a known inhibitor of iron absorption, and studies suggest that coffee is a similar situation.
“Lastly, using a cast iron pan for cooking can provide some additional iron from the pan,” adds Vogt von Heselholt. It sounds like a myth, but the evidence says otherwise. Research shows that cooking with a cast iron pan may increase blood hemoglobin levels and increase iron content in foods.
Is it possible to get iron without eating meat?
Iron is commonly connected with meat and seafood, and it can be found in beef, chicken, oysters, mussels, turkey, and ham. But, these are not the only places where you can obtain iron. Thus, certainly, you may meet your body’s iron requirements without using animal products. But, because iron shortages are so widespread even when people eat meat, it’s essential to talk with your doctor before making any big dietary changes.
The greatest vegan iron sources
There are numerous methods to combine iron-rich plant-based diets. These vegan foods contain this essential mineral:
Lentil, beans, and peas all contain iron, but some have higher amounts than others. Out of all of these pulses, lentils have the highest amount of iron. According to USDA data, they contain 6.6 mg of iron per cooked cup. Chickpeas, navy beans, white beans, kidney beans, and black-eyed peas are also good sources of iron. In addition to this, these complex carbohydrates are high in heart-healthy dietary fiber and contain vitamins and minerals including folate, a type of B-vitamin that’s used to treat anemia.
Soy-based proteins like tofu and tempeh have decent amounts of iron. A cup of raw, crumbled tempeh contains 4.48 mg of it while extra firm tofu will get you eight-percent of your daily value. Both of these are also good plant-based sources of calcium.
Nuts and seeds
Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cashews, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds are the best vegan sources of iron from nuts and seeds. Get your iron by snacking on a handful of unsalted, unroasted nuts or seeds, or enjoy them in nut butter form. Hemp and chia seeds can also be used as an egg substitute in vegan baking, which will add trace amounts of iron to your sweets.
Dark, leafy greens
Dark, leafy greens like kale, collards, Swiss Chard, and bok choy all contain small amounts of iron, ranging from .99 to 2.15 mg per cooked cup, sans salt, or other kinds of seasoning. Cooking is actually the secret to unlocking the maximum amount of iron in these healthy greens. The good news is that it doesn’t matter whether or not those greens are fresh or frozen, and the latter tends to be the more affordable option.
Broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts
Adding some cruciferous vegetables to your plate will give you a little bit of iron, plus dietary fiber and a mix of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. A cup of raw broccoli, shredded raw cabbage, and cooked Brussels sprouts nets anywhere between .52 to 1.86 mg of iron.
It’s a beautiful thing: one medium potato contains around 1.7 mg of iron, which is nine percent of your daily value. The catch is that you can’t peel it—the skin is where most of the iron is concentrated.
Mushrooms contain iron, but only in certain varieties. A cup of cooked white button mushrooms—the most common and usually the most budget-friendly option in grocery stores—nets you 2.7 mg of iron. One hundred grams of enoki mushrooms (we recommend weighing over using cups due to their shape) has 1.28 mg of iron.
Those fresh tomatoes are unparalleled in flavor, but they don’t have much iron content. Tomato paste, however, will add small amounts of iron to your diet. A tablespoon of unsalted tomato paste contains .47 mg of iron. We like using it in red sauce, lentil stews, beans, and as a substitute for fresh tomato whenever our pantry is bare.
Repeat after us: figs, dates, raisins, and prunes are great. Dried fruits have a reputation for being high in sugar, which is true—but, they also contain iron, dietary fiber, and simple carbohydrates. Half a cup of deglet noor dates contains .75 mg of iron while the same amount of figs contains an impressive 1.5 mg. A few tablespoons of raisins in your oatmeal or cereal will also go far, considering that a half-cup contains 2.13 mg. Dried unsulphured apricots are also rich in iron.
You’ll usually find more iron in whole grains compared to processed grains—but as you’ll see below, some enriched grain-based foods also contain it. For whole grains, choose oats, spelt, quinoa, and long-grain brown rice. These deliver between 1.13 and 3.2 mg of iron per cooked cup, which is nothing to sniff at.