Primus Pathology Laboratory

Iron Deficiency: 21 Food Items to Include If You Are a Vegetarian

Last Updated on July 27, 2022 by Dr. Neeraj Gujar


High source of iron rich fruits and vegetables are very important to consume since Iron is an essential mineral your body needs to function properly. Thus, it’s vitally important to consume adequate amounts of it in your daily diet to maintain healthy iron levels and avoid Iron Deficiency.

Interestingly, the foods you eat influence not only how much iron you consume, but also how well it is absorbed into your body. Once it’s absorbed by your body, it’s used as a building block for hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that helps shuttle oxygen around your body.

Iron is also a component of myoglobin, an oxygen storage protein found in your muscles. This oxygen is used when you use your muscles. The recommended intake range is 7–18 mg per day for the general population and up to 27 grams for pregnant women.

Iron is an essential nutrient and plays an important part in many bodily functions. Iron deficiency can lead to low energy, shortness of breathing, headaches, irritability, dizziness, as well as anemia.

There are two types of iron in food: heme and non-heme. Non-heme iron can only be found in animals.

The daily recommended intake is based upon an average intake of 18mg per day. Individual requirements will vary depending on the gender and life stage of an individual. Men and women post-menopausal require 8 mg of iron daily. For women who are pregnant, this amount is approximately 27 mg.

Non-heme iron is more easily absorbed than heme iron so the recommended daily intake (RDI) for vegetarians/vegans is 1.8x higher than that for meat-eaters.

So, to help all you vegetarians out there, here’s a list of 21 foods high in iron. I have categorized them to make them easier for you.

Also Read: Purpose, Procedure and Typical Results of a Ferritin Test

Iron rich Fruits and Vegetables:

1-3 – Legumes

Red meat is a good source of iron, but there are other foods too that offer high iron levels.

Iron can be found in foods in two forms: heme or non-heme.

A great source of iron is found in legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils. Below are the highest iron-rich varieties, ranked from lowest to highest.

1. Tofu, Soybeans, Tempeh, and Natto

Soybeans and other foods made from soybeans are rich in iron. Soybeans contain approximately 8.8 mg per cup of it, which is 49% of the RDI. The same amount of Natto, a fermented soybean product offers 15 mg or 83% of its RDI.

These soy products are rich in iron and contain between 10-19g of protein per serving. They also provide a good source of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium.


2. Lentils

Lentils are rich in protein, complex carbs, and fiber. A cup of cooked lentils provides 18 grams of protein, which is approximately half of the daily recommended intake of fiber.


3. Other Beans and Peas

Other beans also contain high levels of iron. Soybeans are closely followed by white, lima, and red kidney beans, which offer 4.4-6.6 mg iron per cup, or 24-37% RDI.

Chickpeas and black-eyed peas contain between 4.6 and 5.2 mg per cup of cooked beans, which is 26-29% of the RDI. Peas and beans are rich in iron, complex carbs, fiber, and phosphorus. They also contain potassium, manganese, folate, and other beneficial plant compounds.

Numerous studies have also linked regular consumption of beans and peas to lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

4-5 – Nuts and Seeds

These are two additional iron-rich plant sources. The following foods are recommended for those who want to increase their daily iron intake and avoid Iron Deficiency.

an assortment of vegetables and lentils - vegan sources of iron

4. Pumpkin, Sesame, and Hemp Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds, pumpkin, sesame, and hemp are rich in iron. They contain between 1.2-4.2mg per two tablespoons or 7-23% of RDI. These seeds can also be used to make products. Two tablespoons of tahini (a paste made of sesame seeds) contain 2.6 mg iron, which is 14% of RDI. Hummus made with chickpeas, tahini, and iron provides around 3 mg per half-cup, or 17%, of the RDI.

The seeds contain high amounts of plant protein, fiber, and calcium. They also have selenium, anti-oxidants, and other beneficial compounds. They are also rich in omega-3 as well as an omega-6 fatty acid. These two fats are found in hemp seeds in a ratio that is considered optimal for human health.

5. Cashews, Pine Nuts, and Other Nuts

Non-heme iron is found in nuts and nut butter.

Similar to seeds, nuts can be a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Remember that roasting and blanching nuts can damage their nutrients. So, choose raw varieties.

Nut butter should be 100% natural to avoid unnecessary amounts of oil, sugar, and salt.

6-10: Vegetables

Vegetables often contain more iron per gram than foods that are commonly associated with high iron such as meat and eggs. Non-heme iron is less readily absorbed than heme iron. However, vegetables are generally high in vitamin C which aids iron absorption.

These vegetables and products are high in iron per serving.

6. Leafy Greens

Leafy greens such as spinach and kale contain between 2.5-6.4 mg iron per cup or 14-36% of RDI. 100g of spinach, for example, has 1.1 times the iron content of red meat and 2.2x more than 100g of salmon. It also contains 3 times more than 100g of boiled eggs and 3.6x more chicken.

Because of their lightweight, it can be difficult for some to eat 100g of leafy greens raw. It is best to eat them cooked.

Other iron-rich vegetables that fall under this category are broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. They contain between 1 to 1.8 mg per cup or 6-10% of RDI.

7. Tomato Paste

Raw tomatoes have a very low iron content at 0.5 mg per cup. They offer more iron when they are dried or concentrated. Half a cup (118 ml), of tomato paste, has 3.9 mg of iron or 22% of RDI. 1 cup (237 ml), of tomato sauce has 1.9 mg or 11% of RDI.

Sun-dried tomatoes, another iron-rich food source, provide 1.3-2.5mg per half-cup or 14% of the RDI.

Tomatoes also contain vitamin C which aids in iron absorption. They are also a good source of lycopene which is an antioxidant that reduces the risk of sunburn.

8. Potatoes

Potatoes have significant iron levels, most concentrated in their skins.

Specifically, one large, unpeeled potato (or 295g) contains 3.2 mg of iron. This is 18% of RDI. Sweet potatoes have slightly less — about 2.1 mg per the same amount, which is 12% of RDI.

Also, potatoes are a great source of fiber. A single serving can provide up to 46% of your daily vitamin B6, C, and potassium needs.

9. Mushrooms

Some mushrooms are especially rich in iron. One cup of white mushrooms cooked in water contains approximately 2.7 mg or 15% of the RDI.

10. Palm Hearts

The palm heart is a tropical vegetable that is rich in fiber, potassium, and manganese as well as vitamin C, vitamin C, and folate. One lesser-known fact about palm hearts is their iron content — 4.6 mg per cup or 26% of RDI.

You can make dips with this versatile vegetable, or even bake it with your favorite toppings to battle Iron Deficiency.

11-13 Fruit

When people want to increase their iron intake, fruit isn’t often the first food they turn to. But they are still a good source of iron in combination with others.

These are the top sources of iron.

11. Prune Juice

Prunes are well known for their mild laxative effects, which can help relieve constipation. They are also an excellent source of iron.

Prune juice has about 3 mg iron per cup (237ml). This is approximately 17% of the RDI and twice the amount of iron as the same amount of prunes.

Prune juice is high in fiber, potassium, and vitamin C.

12. Olives

Technically, olives are a fruit. They have high iron content. They have 18% of the RDI, and 3.3 mg of iron in 3.5 ounces (100g). Fresh olives are a good source of fiber, good oils, and fat-soluble vitamins E.

Olives are also rich in beneficial plant compounds that may provide several health benefits such as a lower chance of developing heart disease.

13. Mulberries

Mulberries are a fruit that has a high nutritional value.

They provide around 2.6mg of iron per cup, 14% of the RDI. However, this amount of mulberries also meets 85% RDI for vitamin A.

Mulberries are rich in antioxidants, which can help protect against certain types of cancer, such as heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases.

strawberries and mulberries - iron rich vegan sources of food

14-17 – Whole Grains

Research shows whole grains have a range of health benefits. These benefits include increased longevity, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Not all grains are equal in their benefits. Grain processing, for example, typically removes fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins from the grain. Whole grains are more iron-rich than processed grains. These are the four whole grains that have the highest iron content per portion.

14. Amaranth

It is technically a “pseudo-cereal” because it doesn’t grow from grasses like other grains. Amaranth has around 5.2mg of iron per cup, which is 29% of the RDI.

Amaranth is a good source of protein. It also has good amounts of complex carbs, fiber, and manganese.

15. Spelt

Spelt is an iron-rich ancient grain. It has 18% of the RDI and 3.2 mg of iron per cup. Additionally, it contains between 5-6 grams of protein per serving, which is 1.5 times more than other modern grains like wheat.

It may have a slightly higher mineral content than other grains.

16. Oats

Oats can be a delicious and easy way to get iron into your diet. A cup of cooked oats has around 3.4mg of iron (19% of the RDI) and good amounts of plant protein fiber, zinc, magnesium, and folate.

Oats also contain beta-glucan, a soluble fiber, which can help improve gut health, reduce cholesterol, and lower blood sugar.

17. Quinoa

Quinoa, like amaranth, is a pseudo-cereal that’s gluten-free and rich in complex carbs, complete protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The RDI is 16%, and it contains around 2.8 mg of iron per cup. Research also shows that quinoa’s high antioxidant content is linked to lower risks of developing certain medical conditions like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

18-21 Other Food Items

Some foods are not included in the above food groups but contain substantial amounts of iron.

These foods can be incorporated into your daily iron intake.

18. Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is a delicious alternative to cow’s dairy milk. It’s high in fat but a good source of many vitamins and minerals.

Coconut milk contains a lot of iron, with a minimum of 3.8 mg per half-cup (118 ml), which is around 21% of the RDI.

19. Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate has significantly more nutrients than its milk chocolate counterpart. It contains 3.3 mg iron per ounce (28g), which is around 18% of the RDI. However, it also contains a lot of fiber, manganese, magnesium, copper, and manganese.

Dark chocolate is also a great source of antioxidants. This group of beneficial plant compounds helps protect against various diseases.

20. Blackstrap Molasses

Blackstrap Molasses is a sweetener that’s often considered healthier than table sugar. It contains approximately 1.8mg of iron per two tablespoons or about 10% of the RDI.

This portion can also cover 10-30% of the recommended daily intakes of copper, selenium, and potassium as well as vitamin B6, magnesium, and manganese. However, blackstrap Molasses is still very high in sugar, so it should not be eaten in excess.

21. Dried Thyme

It is considered a nutritional powerhouse by many. Research has shown it to have health benefits, including fighting bacterial infections and bronchitis, as well as improving mood.

Thyme is also one of the most iron-rich herbs, with 1.2 mg per dried tablespoon, or approximately 7% of the RDI. A good strategy to increase iron and avoid Iron Deficiency is to sprinkle a little bit on every meal.

How To Increase Iron Absorption from Plant Foods

Human bodies absorb heme iron in meats and animal products more readily than non-heme iron in plants.

Vegetarians and vegans have a recommended daily iron intake that is 1.8x higher than those who eat meat. It amounts to about 14 mg daily for men and women who are post-menopausal, 32 mg per person for women who have their periods, and 49 mg for pregnant women.

There are many strategies you can use to improve your body’s ability to absorb non-heme Iron. These are the most researched methods:

  • Vitamin C-rich Foods: Combining vitamin C-rich food with non-heme iron-rich foods may increase iron absorption by up to 300%.
  • Avoid tea and coffee with meals. Coffee and tea can lower iron absorption by 50-90%.
  • Soak, sprout, and ferment: Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting legumes and grains can increase iron absorption by reducing the number of phytates found in them.
  • Use cast iron pans: Foods cooked in cast iron pans tend to have two to three times the iron of non-iron cookware.
  • Eat lysine-rich food: Combining iron-rich meals with plant foods such as legumes or quinoa may increase iron absorption.

Final Takeaway

Iron is an essential nutrient for the human body. This mineral is found in a variety of foods, which includes many plant foods. These plant foods are a good source of iron and also contain beneficial compounds and other nutrients.

Incorporating them into your diet will help you not only meet your iron needs but also benefit your overall health. Also, make sure that your diet includes proper food items that help you in absorbing the iron. Before you include any of these changes in your lifestyle, do not forget to talk to your doctor about your iron levels and the effective treatment.

Also Read About: When should you be concerned about your hemoglobin levels?

by Dr. Neeraj Gujar

Dr. Neeraj Gujar has done his M.D. in Pathology from Government Medical College. He has worked at various organisations such as Breach Candy Hospital and Tata Memorial Hospital along with many other private organisations. During his working career, he realised the pressing need for exceptional quality diagnostic services. A diagnostic centre that can consistently give accurate results verified by a consultant doctor (M.D. Pathologist) on which your doctor can depend. This has been the founding principle of Primus Pathology and Diagnostics.

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