Iron is an essential nutrient that vegetarian and vegan mamas tend to be concerned about.
It plays an important role in many body processes and a diet poor in iron can cause anemia as well as a variety of unpleasant symptoms.
These range from low energy levels and shortness of breath to a weak immune system, headaches, dizziness and irritability — none of which sound conducive to the start of a good day (1)!
Iron can be found in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal products whereas non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods (2).
Although non-heme iron tends to be less easily absorbed from the diet, there are some ways to get around this and up its absorption.
In this article, I’ll share a list of the 24 iron-rich plant foods and give you some tips to help your body absorb it best.
Legumes such as beans, peans and lentils top the iron-rich plant foods list. Below you’ll find the varieties containing the most, ranked from highest to lowest.
1-4. Tofu, Tempeh, Natto and Soybeans
At 8.8 mg of iron per cup (240 ml), soybeans are packed with iron. So it’s only natural that products made from them also are (3).
The interesting thing about foods made from soybeans is that, in addition to iron, they also contain between 10-19 grams of protein per portion. Plus, they also tend to be a good source of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.
Lentils are another iron-rich legume.
One cup (240 ml) of cooked lentils provides around 6.6 mg of iron, in addition to containing a significant amount of complex carbs, folate and manganese.
This quantity of lentils also provides about 18 grams of protein and covers around 50% of your recommended daily fiber intake (7).
6. Other Beans and Peas
Soybeans and lentils aren’t the only iron-rich legumes around.
Beans and peas are also a rich source of complex carbs, fiber, folate, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and other beneficial plant compounds such as antioxidants.
What’s more, research consistently links diets rich in beans and peas to better health, including lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels as well as reduced belly fat. So adding more to your diet will definitely give you a bang for your buck (14, 15, 16, 17).
In sum: Legumes and foods made from them are rich sources of iron. They also generally contain good amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals and are good for your overall health.
7-8. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are another great source of iron.
The nuts richest in iron include:
- Pine nuts
Plus, they can easily be combined with other iron-rich plant foods. For instance, hummus made from chickpeas and tahini — a sesame seed paste — typically contains around 3 mg of iron per half cup (28).
Just keep in mind that processing can decrease nutrient contents. So nuts and seeds are best consumed raw and unblanched. As for nut butters, picking 100% natural varieties will help you avoid unnecessary added oils, sugars and salt.
In sum: Nuts and seeds are iron-rich plant foods which also contain an array of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial plant compounds. For most benefits, try eating 1-2 portions per day.
Veggies are some of the best iron-rich plant foods around.
Not only are they packed with iron, they’re also naturally rich in many other nutrients including vitamin C which helps enhance non-heme iron absorption. This may be nature’s own way of helping humans absorb enough iron from plants (1).
Below, you’ll find the veggies and veggie-derived products which provide the most iron per serving.
9. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard and beet greens are nutrition powerhouses. In addition to containing an array of nutrients, they will provide between 2.2-6.4 mg of iron per cooked cup (240 ml) (29, 30, 31, 32, 33).
Keep in mind that these leafy greens weigh very little. Cooking will reduce their volume and is a great option if you find it difficult to eat large quantities of raw greens.
10. Palm Hearts
At an impressive 4.6 mg of iron per cup (240 ml), this tropical vegetable contains a fair amount of iron.
It’s also rich in other nutrients, including fiber, potassium, manganese, vitamin C and folate (41).
Add this veggie to your diet by blending it into a dip, tossing it into a salad or stir-fry or simply grilling it on the BBQ.
11. Tomato Paste
Raw tomatoes contain very little iron. But concentrate them into a tomato paste and it’s a whole other story.
Not many mamas expect the good old potato to make it on a list of iron-rich plant foods.
However, its place is well-deserved. Potatoes contain significant amounts of iron, most of which is concentrated in the skin.
Potatoes are also great source of fiber, vitamin C, B6 and potassium. Again, most of these nutrients are concentrated in the skin. So it’s definitely worth eating them unpeeled.
Mushrooms are another rich source of iron.
In sum: Vegetables are loaded with iron, as well as a variety of other beneficial nutrients. Most have a large volume-to-weight ratio, so some mamas may find it easier to eat them cooked rather than raw.
Fruit is not the first thing that pops into most people’s minds when thinking of iron-rich plant foods.
However, some fruits can be surprisingly rich in iron. Below you’ll find the best sources.
Yes, olives are actually a fruit, and an iron-rich one at at hat.
They contain around 3.3 mg of iron per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) and are also a good source of fiber, good fats and fat-soluble vitamins A and E (53).
15. Prune Juice
Prunes are well known for their laxative effect. But a little less known fact is that they’re also a good source of iron (57).
Prune juice is also a good source of vitamin B6 and C as well as manganese and potassium.
Mulberries are more than just a tasty addition to breakfasts and muesli bars. At 2.6 mg of iron per cup (240 ml), they are a good source of iron in their own right.
As most fruit, they’re also rich in vitamin C, which helps boost iron absorption. Plus, they contain a good amount of antioxidants, which may offer some protection against diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer (60, 61, 62).
In sum: Olives, prune juice and mulberries are three fruits with a particularly high iron content per portion. Plus, as most fruit, they contain an array of other nutrients beneficial to your health.
Whole grains, in addition to holding a spot on this list of iron-rich plant foods, can also be very beneficial to your health.
One intesresting advantage whole grains have over processed ones is that they are richer in many nutrients, including iron. The four types of whole grains containing the most iron per portion include:
- Amaranth: This pseudocereal contains around 5.2 mg of iron per cooked cup (240 ml). It’s also rich in fiber, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium as well as one of the few complete sources of plant protein (65).
- Oats: This popular breakfast cereal contains around 3.4 mg of iron per cooked cup (240 ml). Oats are also rich in a type of soluble-fiber know as beta-glucan which promotes gut health and feelings of fullness (66, 67, 68).
- Spelt: Spelt is an ancient grain that contains about 3.2 mg or iron per cooked cup (240ml). It also offers 5-6 grams of protein per portion, which is around 1.5 times more than more modern grains such as wheat (69).
- Quinoa: At 2.8 grams of iron per cooked cup, quinoa is another iron-rich pseudocereal. Plus, it contains health-benefiting antioxidants and is another of the rare plant foods considered a complete source of protein (70).
In sum: Whole grains contain more iron than processed grains. They’re also a great source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial plant compounds which are overall good for your health.
The following foods may not be foods you consume everyday. However, they are well worth adding to your diet since they can contribute to an iron-rich plant-based diet.
21. Coconut Milk
At 3.8 mg of iron per half cup (120 ml), coconut milk is one of the plant-milks richest in iron.
Coconut milk is also a good source of vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, copper and manganese but remains high in fat. So a little will go a long way (71).
22. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate must be one of the most delicious iron-rich plant foods on this list.
Not only does it offer around 3.3 mg of iron per ounce (28 grams), it also contains a good amount of fiber, vitamins and minerals — especially magnesium, copper and manganese (72).
As a bonus, dark chocolate is rich also in antioxidants, which can protect your body against damage and benefit your overall health (73).
23. Blackstrap Molasses
Blackstrap molasses is a sweetener that’s particularly rich in iron. It contains about 1.8 mg per two tablespoons (74).
This portion also helps meet around 10-30% of your recommended daily intake of copper, potassium, selenium, vitamin B6, magnesium and manganese.
Just keep in mind that blackstrap molasses are high in sugar, so remain best consumed in moderation.
24. Dried Thyme
Out of all culinary herbs, dried thyme is a particularly iron-rich one. It offers around 1.2 mg of iron per dried teaspoon (5 ml) (75).
In sum: Coconut milk, dark chocolate, blackstrap molasses and dried thyme are iron-rich plant foods worth adding to your diet in small doses.
Good Ways to Increase Iron Absorption from Plant Foods
The iron found in plant-foods tends to be more difficult for the body to absorb.
This is why vegans mamas are often encouraged to consume 1.8 times more iron than the current recommended daily intake.
This would bring the daily recommendation to 32 mg of iron per day for menstruating mamas and 49 mg per day for pregnant ones.
It’s good to mention that there’s still some debate whether such high amounts are truly necessary. But in the meantime, here are some good ways to help your body absorb more non-heme iron from plant foods (79):
- Add vitamin C-rich foods: Combining iron-rich plant foods with those containing vitamin C can boost iron absorption by up to 300% (1).
- Avoid coffee and tea: Drinking coffee and tea with meals or snacks containing iron-rich plant foods can decrease iron absorption by 50-90% (80).
- Soak, sprout and ferment: Soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains and legumes can reduce the amount of anti-nutrients they contain, which can help boost iron absorption (81).
- Get a cast iron pan: Cooking foods in an cast iron pan can increase the iron content of meals up to three fold compared to the iron content of meals cooked in non-iron cookware (82).
- Eat lysine-rich foods: Eating foods rich in the amino acid lysine together with iron rich meals can help boost iron absorption. Good sources of lysine include quinoa and legumes (83).
In sum: The non-heme iron found in plant foods is less easily absorbed by the body. The tips above can help boost its absorption.
To Sum It Up
Iron is a nutrient that plays an essential role in the body and many plant foods are loaded with it.
Although the non-heme iron they offer is somewhat difficult for the body to absorb, following the tips above should help vegetarian and vegan mamas make the most of the iron they contain.
Plus, these iron-rich plant foods also happen to provide a variety of nutrients and beneficial plant compounds that will benefit your overall health. Now that’s what I call lighting two candles with one matchstick!
What’s your favorite way to combine the foods above into iron-rich meals or snacks? I’m always on the lookout for new ideas, so let’s chat about yours in the comments below.