Iron deficiency can lead to several health issues including anemia, low energy levels, headaches, etc. It is a common notion that only non-vegetarian options, such as red meats, shellfish, turkey, etc., are iron rich foods. And if you are vegan or a vegetarian, you may be worried about not having enough iron in your diet. Fortunately, there are several iron rich foods for vegetarian, such as leafy greens, potatoes, mushrooms, seeds, prune juice, olives, peas, nuts, etc., which can keep you free from iron deficiency symptoms.

Read on to know more about the importance of iron, how much iron do you need, iron rich foods for vegetarian and how to maximize its absorption.

Importance of iron in the body

Iron is an essential nutrient that is responsible for many functions in the body (1). Iron contributes to –

1. Formation of red blood cells and hemoglobin

The primary role of hemoglobin is to transport oxygen from the lungs to body tissues. Without red blood cells, our body can not get enough oxygen, and this can lead to the feeling of lethargy.

2. Converts food to energy

Iron plays a vital role in converting food to energy. Our cells need iron to convert biochemical energy from food into Adenosine Triphosphate(ATP). Without iron, our cells do not produce any ATP, and we end up feeling tired.

3. Helps maintain a healthy immune system

Iron is essential for immune cell proliferation and maturation, and this helps keep us healthy.

4. Helps maintain normal cognitive function

Iron helps maintain brain functions like memory, attention, alertness, and intelligence.

Heme iron Vs. non-heme iron

There are two forms of dietary irons – heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron comes from animal proteins in our diet and meat, poultry, seafood, and fish are its primary sources.

Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods like grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.  Dairy products like eggs, milk and other milk-based products also contain non-heme iron.

Our body absorbs these two types of iron very differently. Heme iron (7 to 35 %) is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron (2 to 20%) (2).

Since our body has no system to expel excess iron, it regulates the absorption very tightly. If our iron levels are low, our intestines absorb more iron, and when the iron levels are high, our body blocks iron absorption. This system only works for non-heme iron.

Iron requirements

How much iron we need depends on our age, gender, and overall health. The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine recommends the following (3).

Infants and children
• Younger than 6 months: 0.27 mg/day
• 7 months to 12 months: 11 mg/day
• 1 to 3 years: 7 mg/day
• 4 to 8 years: 10 mg/day

Males
• 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
• 14 to 18 years: 11 mg/day
• Age 19 and older: 8 mg/day

Females
• 9 to 13 years: 8 mg/day
• 14 to 18 years: 15 mg/day
• 19 to 50 years: 18 mg/day
• 51 and older: 8 mg/day

Iron rich foods for vegetarian

1. Leafy greens

Green leafy vegetables contain more iron when cooked than when they are raw. It is one of the best iron rich vegetables. Spinach contains 6.43 mg of iron in one cup when cooked (4).

Swiss chard too is a rich source of non-heme iron. Kale, collard, and beet greens are some other leafy greens that contain between 2.5 to 6.4 mg per cooked cup, which makes for 14 to 36 percent of our daily requirement for iron.

Broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are some of the other iron-rich vegetables.

Iron rich vegetarian food infographic

2. Tomato paste

Raw tomatoes do not contain much iron. However, when they are dried and concentrated, their iron-content increases. Half a cup of canned tomato paste contains 3.9 mg of iron which is 22 percent of RDI, while 1 cup of tomato sauce contains 1.9 mg or iron which is 11 percent of RDI (5,6).

Not only does one cup of sun-dried tomatoes contain 30 percent of the recommended daily iron intake, but they are also a rich source of lycopene, antioxidants and vitamin C.

3. Mushrooms

Some varieties of mushrooms are rich in iron content. For example, one cup of cooked white mushrooms contains 2.7 mg of the RDI (7). Oyster mushrooms contain twice the amount of iron as compared to white mushrooms, while shiitake mushrooms contain very little (8).

4. Potatoes

Potatoes are one of the best iron rich vegetables. Their iron content is mostly concentrated in their skins. One sizeable unpeeled potato (295 grams) contains 3.2 mg of iron which is 18 percent of the RDI (9).

This vegetable is also a rich source of vitamin C, which makes it easier for our body to absorb the iron. Potatoes are also an excellent source of fiber, potassium, magnesium and vitamin B6.

5. Heart of palm

Heart of palm is a tropical vegetable that is harvested from the inner core of some palm trees. Not only is this vegetable low in cholesterol, but it is also rich in iron. It contains an impressive 4.6 mg of iron per cup, which 26 percent of the RDI (10).

6. Mulberries

Mulberries provide high levels of protein, iron, and vitamin C. One cup of mulberries provides 2.6 mg of iron which is 14 percent of RDI, and it contains 85 percent of RDI for vitamin C which helps the iron to get absorbed better (11).

Mulberries offer protection against heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer as well.

7. Olives

Black olives are an excellent source of iron. They contain 3.3 mg of iron in a 100-gram serving (12). Olives are also rich in vitamin C which helps the iron to get absorbed better.

8. Prune juice

One cup of prune juice contains 3.02 mg of iron. It is also a rich source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and manganese. Prune juice is also known for its laxative effect.

9. Soybeans

Soybeans are one of the best vegetarian sources of iron. One cup of soybeans contains almost 8.8 mg iron (13). Other soy products like tofu, natto, and tempeh are also rich sources of iron.

10. Lentils

Lentils are legumes that have a considerable amount of non-heme iron per serving. One cooked cup of lentils contains 6.6 mg of iron, which is 37 percent RDI (14).  Lentils contain proteins, complex carbs, folate, manganese. These legumes are one of the most inexpensive sources of iron.

11. Beans

Different types of beans like black, white, Lima, kidney and navy beans are all excellent sources of iron. They provide between 4.4 to 6.6 mg of iron per cooked cup, which amounts to 26 to 29 percent of RDI.

12. Peas

Chickpeas and black-eyed peas are rich sources of iron as they contain 4.6 to 5.2 mg iron per cooked cup. They also are rich in fiber. Chickpeas make a healthy snack and can be used in salads as well.

13. Seeds

Sesame, pumpkin, hemp, and flaxseeds are excellent sources of iron. They contain between 1.2 to 4.2 mg of iron per two tablespoons. Foods made from these seeds like tahini and hummus are also rich in iron.

These seeds are also rich in many other essential nutrients like protein, dietary fiber, calcium, zinc, selenium, magnesium and many other antioxidants.

14. Nuts

Cashew nuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, and almonds are all rich in non-heme iron. They contain 1 to 1.6 mg iron per ounce. Raw nuts are higher in iron content as compared to the roasted and blanched variety.

15. Quinoa

Quinoa is a superfood which is a rich source of many nutrients including iron. One cup of cooked quinoa provides 2.8 mg of iron (15). Not only is quinoa gluten-free, but it is also rich in folate, magnesium, copper and manganese and antioxidants.

16. Oats

Just half a cup of oatmeal contains 2 mg of iron (16). Oats also contain protein, magnesium, zinc, folate, and fiber. Oats also contain a soluble fiber called beta-glucan which can help promote digestive health, reduce blood sugars and cholesterol.

17. Spelt

Spelt is a variety of wheat that has been cultivated since 5000 BC. Spelt contains 3.2 mg of iron per cooked cup (17). This ancient grain helps regulate metabolism, aids in creation if sex hormone, increases circulation and builds healthy bones.

18. Amaranth

Amaranth is a grain that has many nutritional benefits.  It is high in iron, phosphorus, fiber, protein, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus. One cup of cooked amaranth contains 5.2 mg of iron (18). This grain is loaded with antioxidants that help boost the immune system.

19. Dried thyme

Amongst all the herbs, thyme has the highest iron content. One teaspoon of dried thyme contains 1.2 mg of iron (19). This herb has been used for its medicinal qualities for thousands of years. It helps boost immunity, improve heart health, prevents macular degeneration and prevents stress.

20. Blackstrap molasses

Blackstrap molasses is a healthy sweetener and has the lowest sugar content of any sugarcane product. It contains 1.8 mg of iron per two tablespoons (20). It also includes other vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6 and selenium. It helps prevent cancer, relieves stress and promotes healthy skin.

21. Coconut milk

Coconut milk is an excellent source of various vitamins and minerals. It is a highly nutritious alternative to cow’s milk for vegans and those allergic to dairy. Coconut milk contains 3.8 mg of iron per half cup. It improves heart health, improves digestion, builds muscles and helps to lose weight.

22. Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is highly nutritious and an excellent source of antioxidants. One ounce of dark chocolate contains 3.3 mg of iron which is around 18 of the RDI (21). Dark chocolate also contains flavonoids, which are helpful in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

23. Spirulina

One ounce of spirulina provides 8 mg of iron. These algae are known for its distinctive flavor and its health benefits. It is a rich source of amino acids, protein and vitamin B, C, D, and E.

Ways to get the most iron out of your food

  • Eat foods that are rich in vitamin C and A along with iron-rich foods. These foods help the body absorb the iron better. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits, tomato, kale, red pepper, cauliflower, papaya, and strawberries. Foods that contain vitamin A include carrots, broccoli, peas, beets, apricots, peaches, and lemons.
  • Avoid tea and coffee. They contain compounds called polyphenols, which bind with iron and make it harder to get absorbed.
  • Calcium hinders the absorption of iron. Try taking avoid calcium-rich products at least half an hour before or after you eat iron-rich food.
  • Cook your food in iron pots and pans. Cooking food in iron pans increases the iron content of the food. The acid in the food pulls out some of the iron from the pans.

Final words on iron rich foods for vegetarian

The World Health Organisation considers iron deficiency as the number one nutritional disorder in the world. Considering the number of iron-rich foods available for vegetarians, we can quickly add nutritional content to your food. So, go on and include these foods in your daily diet for a healthier you.

There are several iron rich foods for vegetarian, such as leafy greens, potatoes, mushrooms, seeds, prune juice, olives, peas, nuts, etc., which can keep you free from iron deficiency symptoms.