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Iron is one of the most essential micronutrients of almost all living organisms, including humans. We require it for multiple chemical processes in our bodies, including the function of hemoglobin which delivers oxygen from lungs to all the tissues of the body, and myoglobin, which stores oxygen in muscles (1). There are numerous plant-based iron-rich foods, but there are a few things to consider if you are trying to improve your iron.
Unfortunately, there have been no recent studies done in Canada to identify an iron deficiency in kids and adult populations. But anemia is considered a health problem worldwide (2).
I’ve been anemic for most of my pre-vegan life. My iron levels have actually improved the first years of being vegan. However, after 4 years of being vegan, my blood test showed iron deficiency again.
There could be a few reasons for it.
But today we are not talking about the causes. Today, I want to share a few easily available foods you can eat to increase your iron.
Plant-based (non-heme) Iron-rich Foods
Tofu – is a great source of iron and protein, contains 3.5 to 6.7 mg of iron per 1/2 cup, depending on the brand and type.
Tempeh – similar to tofu, a great source of iron and protein.
Beans – different varieties contain various iron levels. In general, they all contain great levels of iron. If bloating is an issue, add fennel seeds to the meals when cooking, or garnish your meals with fresh fennel. Check my hummus recipe and a post-workout salad with beets and apples here.
Soybeans – one of the highest iron-rich foods, 8.8 mg/1 cup of cooked soybeans. There were concerns about the connection of soy to cancer. I am not a physician, but I know that so many Asian nations consider soybeans a staple food, and their cancer number nowhere close to the numbers in many developed countries. I would say, buy organic, non-GMO soy, and consume it in moderation. Of course, if you are allergic to soy, it is a totally different story…
Lentils – a serving can contain up to 35% of Recommended Daily Amount (RDA)!
Peas – are not as rich in iron as lentils or beans, but still, have up to 3 g of iron per serving (3/4 c of cooked peas).
- Vegetables and Fruit
Cooked spinach – one of the iron champs containing 6.4 mg of iron per one cup!
Dried apricots – choose organic varieties.
Asparagus – yes, please! It is rich in iron and vitamin C which makes it perfect for better absorption of iron.
Leafy greens, including kale – contain 1 to 2.5 mg iron depending on the plant.
Swiss chard – 4 mg per 1 cup cooked! If you were contemplating about this veggie, hopefully, this will help you change your mind!
Tomato sauce or puree – similar to asparagus, it is 2 in 1 product for both iron and vitamin C consumption!
- Nuts and Seeds (all numbers are per 1 oz/30g unless stated otherwise)
Pistachio – contain more iron than almonds or cashews!
Almonds – 1.2 mg.
Cashews – 1.7 mg.
Chia seeds – 2.2 mg per 1 oz (approx. 30 g)!
Pumpkin seeds – 4.2 mg which makes them iron champions in this category! They also contain zinc, which is great for skin and hair! Read this post about foods good for the skin.
Sesame seeds – also a great source of protein and Omega 3!
Oatmeal – probably contains one of the highest amounts of iron per serving. If you haven’t yet tried my overnight oats recipe, it is time to do it now 🙂 Also, if you are looking for a gluten-free breakfast option, oats are gluten-free if there was no in-processing cross-contamination.
Cream of Wheat or Semolina porridge – in addition to the high iron content, it is also a good source of protein!
Quinoa – technically not a grain, but 1 cup of cooked quinoa contains 2.8 mg of iron!
And the list can go on and on (3).
How much Iron per day do we need?
Canadian RDA for iron is as follows (4):
Kids – 7 to 10 mg
Men 14 and older – 8 to 11 mg
Women 15 – 49 y.o. – 15 to 18 mg
Pregnant women – 27 mg
Breastfeeding – 10 mg
Women 50 and older – 8 mg
These recommendations will be almost as twice as high for vegans and vegetarians.
Non-heme (plant-based food) iron is not absorbed as well as the animal source
That is just how our bodies work.
To improve absorption, it is recommended to consume iron-rich foods with foods rich in Vitamin C. For example, if you are eating lentils, make them with tomato sauce which contains both iron and vitamin C ;). Or morning oatmeal with fresh orange juice. Doesn’t it sound like a first-class living? 🙂
On the other hand, reduce the consumption of tea and coffee, as they might inhibit iron absorption. Or simply have your coffee or tea an hour or two after you had your “iron” meal.
Some of the foods high in vitamin C are melons, berries, citrus fruit, tomatoes, bell peppers, and even potatoes! Strawberries, orange and grapefruit juice, and broccoli are the champions of the vitamin C source! As well as kohlrabi and cranberry juice.
Do you like fermented sauerkraut? Awesome! Lactic acid is a great component in it which helps iron absorption as well!
Always remember to pre-soak your lentils and beans if cooking them from scratch, as pre-soaking also help to reduce the inhibiting factor.
How much is too much?
Is there such a thing as too much iron in our diet?
It turns out that yes!
In high amounts, iron can be toxic. Therefore, it is not recommended to take more than 45 mg/day.
If your daily diet consists of a combination of most of the above-mentioned foods, chances are you don’t need any supplements. However, if you had your blood tests done and found that your iron is low, here is the product I have been using (affiliate link).
I’d tried other iron supplements, but my stomach didn’t like them…
Iron supplements can be very funny on our stomachs. My non-vegan friend had to take shots, as her body just didn’t like the pills.
Once again, remember, only take supplements if your doctor has confirmed your iron is low and you need them! And if you get them, make sure you keep them out of children’s reach.
Please comment below, if you found this post helpful. I will be happy to hear from you!