Plant-Based Foods Rich in Iron

It can be hard to get enough iron on a plant-based diet. To help you introduce more of it in your diet, we collected a list of 60+ plant-based foods rich in iron.

Index

What is iron?

Iron is an essential mineral. Although it represents only 0.005% of an average adult body weight (e.g., roughly 4 grams on average), every cell in the body depends on it.

Oxygen transportation in the blood and oxygen storage in muscles rely on, respectively, hemoglobin and myoglobin. Iron is an essential part of both of these two biomolecules.

Red blood cells.
Red blood cells

If that wasn’t enough, iron is essential to form red blood cells, blood vessels, a huge number of proteins and enzymes, and is directly involved in many metabolic processes (including anaerobic energy production).

There are two forms of Iron:

  • Heme iron: Found in animal products, it binds to carrier proteins.
  • Non-heme Iron: Found mostly in plants, it doesn’t bind to carrier proteins.

Heme iron is more bioavailable than non-heme iron, which means that the iron you obtain from your plant-based diet will not have the same degree of absorption of iron coming from the hemoglobin and myoglobin found in the blood and muscles of animal products.

This is not necessarily bad news, provided you get enough iron from plant-based sources. In fact, the body tends to regulate non-heme absorption to avoid overload, but it simply absorbs heme iron without a way to excrete the excess (short of bleeding through menstruation, bloodletting, or donating blood).

High consumption of heme iron can cause excess oxidative stress (i.e., inflammation) and is associated with several metabolic diseases (including cancer).

Men, in particular, are suspectable to high iron levels while eating a diet rich in animal products. Unlike pre-menopausal women, they are not excreting iron via menstrual blood.

Moreover, there is evidence that phytates in plants facilitate a process of iron chelation which inhibits the release of dangerous hydroxyl radicals.

In other words, on a plant-based diet, you might have to work a little harder to get enough iron, but you are not going to experience the downside of excess heme iron consumption.

Increasing plant-based iron absorption

Mineral and vitamin balance is important and can affect the absorption of the non-heme iron you consume from plant-based sources.

Vitamin C increases non-heme iron absorption. This means that it’s a good idea to combine plant-based foods rich in iron with foods rich in Vitamin C (e.g., add some peppers to your beans).

Conversely, consumption of calcium, zinc, and tannins (found in tea) can reduce the absorption of non-heme iron in the body.

Research suggests that you should avoid drinking tea within an hour window of having your meals, if iron absorption is a concern.

How much iron do you need?

Daily iron requirements vary depending on your age and sex. For women, it also depends on whether you are pre or post-menopause, pregnant, or breastfeeding.

The table below shows the iron Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for vegetarians and plant-based eaters.

AgeMaleFemalePregnantLactating
1 – 3 years12.6 mg12.6 mgN/AN/A
4 – 8 years18 mg18 mgN/AN/A
9 – 13 years14.4 mg14.4 mgN/AN/A
14 – 18 years19.8 mg27 mg48.6 mg18 mg
19 – 50 years14.4 mg32.4 mg48.6 mg16.2 mg
> 51 years14.4 mg14.4 mgN/AN/A

These recommendations are 1.8 times higher than the standard RDAs to account for the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron (as well as the consumption of meat itself boosting iron absorption).

For young children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, a doctor should be consulted to discuss individual iron requirements.

If you are taking a multivitamin, check the label to see what portion of your daily iron intake it may supply you with, if any.

The % DV (Percent Daily Value) you see on nutritional labels is based on different values depending on the country you live in. For example, in Canada, it’s based on an iron RDA of 14 mg. So an item whose nutritional label shows 50% DV would actually contain 7 mg of iron.

Consequences of iron deficiency

Iron deficiency is the most common form of nutritional deficiency worldwide. This condition, known as iron deficiency anemia is caused by the fact that the body will struggle to produce hemoglobin and red blood cells if enough iron is not consumed.

Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, weakness, dizziness, pale skin, brittle or curled up nails, cold extremities, and even pica (a peculiar craving for dirt), among others.

Anemia symptoms.
Symptoms of anemia

A doctor can easily diagnose anemia with a blood test that can check for ferritin, hemoglobin, and red blood cell count.

As mentioned before in this article, excess iron is also problematic and increases your risk of cancer, CVD (Cardiovascular disease), and even Alzheimers.

Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of iron overload. In the case of extreme supplementation, it can be fatal.

Actual iron poisoning is sadly mostly common in children, due to their smaller upper tolerance and their propensity to mistake iron-containing multivitamin for candy. (Thankfully child-proof bottles have made this occurrence much rarer.)

There is no need to supplement iron (or cook with an iron fish), even on a plant-based diet, if you meet the iron intake indicated in the table above. However, you should have regular blood tests done to ensure adequate levels.

List of plant-based foods rich in iron

Omnivores get the majority of their iron from muscle meat and seafood products. In this article, we list plant-based foods that are rich in iron, as omitting animal products from your diet can make meeting one’s iron intake requirements more challenging.

There are several vegetables (dark leafy greens in particular), legumes, seeds, grains, and dried fruits that contain high amounts of iron.

Let’s review each category.

Vegetables rich in iron

Vegetables rich in iron.

Below you’ll find a list of vegetables rich in iron.

FoodCalories
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 cal)
Morel Mushrooms31 cal12.18 mg39.29 mg
Parsley36 cal6.20 mg17.22 mg
Cocoa Powder250 cal36.00 mg14.40 mg
Spinach23 cal2.71 mg11.78 mg
Beet Greens22 cal2.57 mg11.68 mg
Seaweed38 cal3.85 mg10.13 mg
Swiss Chard19 cal1.80 mg9.47 mg
Dandelion Greens45 cal3.10 mg6.89 mg
Blackstrap Molasses400 cal24.00 mg6.00 mg
Jerusalem Artichokes73 cal3.40 mg4.66 mg
Kale35 cal1.60 mg4.57 mg
Green Beans29 cal1.06 mg3.66 mg
Leeks61 cal2.10 mg3.44 mg
Turnip Greens32 cal1.10 mg3.44 mg
Black Olives105 cal3.31 mg3.15 mg
Pumpkin26 cal0.80 mg3.08 mg
Asparagus29 cal0.85 mg2.93 mg
Edamame129 cal3.18 mg2.47 mg
White Mushrooms22 cal0.50 mg2.27 mg
Broccoli34 cal0.73 mg2.15 mg
Beets43 cal0.80 mg1.86 mg
Watercress11 cal0.20 mg1.82 mg
Green Peas79 cal1.24 mg1.57 mg
Peppers24 cal0.37 mg1.54 mg
Tomatoes18 cal0.27 mg1.50 mg
Collards32 cal0.47 mg1.47 mg
Acorn Squash47 cal0.73 mg1.47 mg

(It’s worth noting that cooking spinach, and most dark leafy greens, will improve absorption of their iron content.)

Incorporating some of these vegetables (and mushrooms) into your diet every day would greatly help you in reaching the vegan RDA recommendations (listed above).

Nuts and seeds rich in iron

Nuts and seeds rich in iron.

Below you’ll find a list of nuts and seeds rich in iron.

FoodCalories
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 cal)
Pumpkin Seeds574 cal8.07 mg1.41 mg
Sesame Seeds567 cal7.78 mg1.37 mg
Cashews571 cal6.29 mg1.10 mg
Flax Seeds534 cal5.73 mg1.07 mg
Sunflower Seeds584 cal5.25 mg0.90 mg
Almonds567 cal4.80 mg0.85 mg
Pine Nuts673 cal5.53 mg0.82 mg

Nuts and seeds are, of course, quite caloric. This means that to get a significant amount of iron from them, you would need to invest a sizable portion of your caloric budget.

Knowing which seeds and nuts are rich in iron allows you to make better-informed choices. Your iron intake all adds up at the end of the day.

Beans and grains rich in iron

Grains and beans rich in iron.

Below you’ll find a list of some beans and grains rich in iron.

FoodCalories
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 cal)
Lentils229 cal10.29 mg4.49 mg
White Beans333 cal10.44 mg3.14 mg
Lupini Beans111 cal3.20 mg2.88 mg
Lima Beans113 cal3.14 mg2.78 mg
Black-eyed Peas343 cal8.57 mg2.50 mg
Kidney Beans333 cal8.20 mg2.46 mg
Teff367 cal7.63 mg2.08 mg
Navy Beans337 cal5.49 mg1.63 mg
Amaranth378 cal6.00 mg1.59 mg
Black Beans132 cal2.10 mg1.59 mg
Soy Beans150 cal2.25 mg1.50 mg
Quinoa368 cal4.57 mg1.24 mg
Pinto Beans341 cal4.09 mg1.20 mg
Chickpeas128 cal1.15 mg0.90 mg
Brown rice362 cal1.80 mg0.50 mg

(Values for dry grains and uncooked beans.)

Lentils and white beans, in particular, are loaded with iron. Among whole grains, teff and amaranth are good iron-rich choices.

Fruits rich in iron

Dried fruit rich in iron.

Fruits aren’t very high in iron. The exception being dried fruits. Unfortunately, much like nuts and seeds, dried fruit is very caloric (and high in sugar) so loading up on it to reach your iron daily requirement is not a great idea (unless you’re trying to gain weight).

Still, the same argument we made for nuts and seeds apply here as well. Don’t rely solely on these, but if you consume dried fruit, consider the list below.

FoodCalories
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 g)
Iron
(per 100 cal)
Dried Peaches239 cal4.06 mg1.70 mg
Dried Apricots250 cal2.70 mg1.08 mg
Dried Figs249 cal2.03 mg0.82 mg
Raisins299 cal1.88 mg0.63 mg
Dried Apples243 cal1.40 mg0.58 mg
Prunes240 cal0.93 mg0.39 mg

Processed vegan foods rich in iron

Processed vegan foods rich in iron.

Several plant-based processed foods also have high amounts of iron, either naturally or because they’re fortified with it. Some examples of vegan foods rich in iron include:

  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Enriched bread
  • Dark chocolate
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Fortified plant-based milk and meat substitutes
  • Protein bars
  • Instant Oatmeal
  • Peanut Butter
  • Yeast extract spreads
  • Whole wheat products including pasta
  • Cream of wheat
  • Cornmeal
  • Hummus
  • Tomato sauce
  • Prune juice

Our recommendation is to go easy on processed foods, but if you already eat these foods, it’s worth checking the nutritional label to verify their iron contribution to your daily diet.

Conclusion

Vegans have higher iron intake requirements than the general population. As a result, if you’re plant-based, you should try to incorporate a variety of these plant-based foods that are rich in non-heme iron into your diet.

If you question whether you are getting enough iron, consider logging your food for a few days with an app like Cronometer. It will tell you whether you are meeting your iron (and other micronutrients) goals.

Finally, once in a while, get tested to ensure that no deficiencies, including iron deficiencies, have been introduced by your daily dietary choices.

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