Home / Our Blog / Vegan foods high in iron
Vegan foods high in iron

Vegan foods high in iron

Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. Although there are plenty of vegan foods high in iron, the type of iron found in plants is not as easily absorbed as the type found in meat. For this reason, it is important for people on a vegan or vegetarian diet to be aware of foods that are high in iron and techniques that can promote iron absorption.

Why iron is an important micronutrient

The main functions of iron are to help supply oxygen to the blood, to help the body resist disease, to promote red blood cell formation, and to maintain proper metabolism. The Symptoms of a lack of iron include tiredness, lack of stamina, breathlessness, depression, dim vision and poor memory, all of which are associated with decreased oxygen supply to tissues and organs. Iron deficiency in infants can result in impaired learning ability and behavioural problems. [1]

Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron

Before we share the top plant sources of iron, it's important for you to understand that the two forms of iron that are available through food - heme and non-heme.
In our blog 'What you need to know about protein when on a plant-based or vegan diet', we described how there are 'complete proteins', which contain all essential amino acids, and incomplete proteins which do not. It's a similar situation with iron - not all iron is the same. There are two forms, heme and non-heme. When on a plant-based diet, there are extra considerations to make sure you are absorbing enough iron. Here's why:
Heme iron is found only in animal flesh like meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens. Non-heme iron is also found in animal flesh (as animals consume plant foods with non-heme iron) and fortified foods. [2]
Heme iron is easier to absorb compared to non-heme iron. This is the primary reason why vegans and vegetarians are more at risk for iron deficiency.
There are actions that you can take to increase the absorption of non-heme iron:
  1. Eat foods high in Vitamin C at the same time as eating foods high in Iron. Vitamin C is known to promote iron absorption helps to facilitate the drawbacks of non-heme iron. Try including citrus fruits, such as oranges or squeezed lemon with your iron-rich meals.
  2. Coffee and tea are known to prohibit iron absorption. It's recommended that you drink tea and coffee in between meals, rather than at the same time.  

    Best iron sources for vegans

    The average recommended dietary allowances of iron is 8 mg/day for men and 18 mg/day for women older than 19 (the recommended intake varies based on age and situation). [3]
    Here are some of the best iron-rich foods for people on a vegan or vegetarian diet. By including these in your diet, you should be able to meet your daily iron requirements easily and maintain your vegan/vegetarian lifestyle with ease.

    1. Vegetables

    Vegetables have a higher iron content than most meat and eggs, however, the type of iron is the non-heme iron which isn’t easily absorbed. However, vegetables are also a rich source of Vitamin C which in turn helps with iron absorption. Vegetables are among the most common and easy to integrate sources of iron.
    Leafy green vegetables are a rich source of iron. Vegetables like spinach and kale contain roughly 2.5–6.4 mg of iron per cooked cup. Leafy greens are best consumed in their cooked form in order to gain the required iron. Other vegetables like potatoes are a great source of iron as well. One large potato can contain around 3.2 mg of iron. Things are a bit tricky when it comes to vegetables like tomatoes. While raw tomatoes contain an insignificant amount of iron, dried and concentrated ones have a higher amount of iron. Half a cup (118 ml) of tomato paste offers 3.9 mg of iron, or 22% of the RDI.


    spinach, a good source of iron for a vegan diet


    2. Whole Grains

    Grains are one of the best sources for most of the essential nutrients, including iron. However, the same benefit gets lost when they’re processed. For this reason, whole grains are an excellent source of many essential nutrients like iron, antioxidants, fibre, etc.
    Amaranth is one of the most iron-rich whole grains out there as it consists of 5.2 mg of iron per cup cooked. It is also rich in fibre, carbs, magnesium and other nutrients. Quinoa is a popular grain for a reason and there’s plenty of reasons why. Not only does it contain 2.8 mg of iron per cup cooked, but it is also linked to being an anti-oxidant and contains valuable nutrients like complete protein, carbs, fibre, etc.


    Whole grains are a good source of iron for vegan diet

    3. Fruits

    While fruits aren’t necessarily well-known as iron sources, there are certainly some that make the cut. One such fruit is olives, yes olives are a type of fruit. Olives have 3.3 mg of iron per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) making them one of the highest sources of iron among fruits. Other fruits like prune juice and mulberries are good iron sources as well. Dried fruits are also a good option, as the nutrients are concentrated in the dehydration process. The sugar is too mind you, so don't overdo the dried fruit if you're watching your sugar intake.

    Olives good source of iron for vegan diet

    4. Blackstrap Molasses

    Blackstrap molasses is a byproduct of sugar cane’s refining process. Unlike refined sugars, which have no nutritional value, blackstrap molasses contains vitamin and minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, potassium and selenium. [3]. One tablespoon of Blackstrap Molasses contains around contains 3 mg of iron. When buying blackstrap molasses, look for products that are organic and unsulphered.


    5. Dark Chocolate

    You might be pleased to hear that dark chocolate is a good source of iron, along with other benefits such as antioxidants and prebiotic fibre. You can read more about the benefits of prebiotics in our blog 'Prebiotics or Probiotics - what's your gut feeling?'.
    100g of dark chocolate contains around 3.6mg of iron. [4] The darker the chocolate the better, so go for at least 60% dark chocolate (above 80% is even better).
    dark chocolate, a source of iron for vegan and vegetarian diet

    6. Nuts And Seeds

    Pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds have high iron levels. Nut and nut butter are also a good source of iron, particularly for a snack. 
    Here's a list of the iron levels of the top seeds and nuts in terms of iron content:
    Pumpkin seeds (dried) - 15mg per 100g
    Sesame seeds - 9mg per 100g (1.3mg per tbsp)
    Pine nuts - 5.5mg per 100g
    Pistachio nuts - 4.2mg per 100g
    Almonds - 3.7mg per 100g
    nuts and seeds high in iron for vegan diet


    When on a vegan diet, it's important to make sure you are (a) eating enough food sources high in iron and (b) eating them in a way that increases their level of absorption. Eating foods high in vitamin C at the same time as foods high in iron and avoiding drinking tea and coffee at mealtime, will help to ensure you are getting enough iron on a vegan diet. 

    If you are experiencing symptoms of being low in iron, you can take a blood test to find out confirm your iron levels.