Being a healthy vegan requires some amount of planning to ensure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs. 'How to Get Iron on a Vegan Diet' shines a spotlight on iron, a vital mineral that vegans often fall short of.
My generation (Gen X) tends to associate iron with spinach and strong muscles because of the cartoon character Popeye. Contrary to popular belief, the original comic strip was not promoting spinach for its high iron content, but for its high vitamin A content! (While spinach does contain a lot of iron, our bodies can’t readily absorb it because of the high number of iron-binding polyphenols in spinach.)
🥬 Why Do We Need Iron?
We need iron just like we need oxygen. In fact, without it, our cells don’t get sufficient oxygen and we start to feel tired and short of breath. And it’s not the kind of tired where a cup of coffee will save the day.
Our bodies use iron to make the proteins in our red blood cells that carry oxygen to the lungs, muscles, and all parts of the body. Without enough of this essential mineral, your body won’t get enough oxygen.
🪧 What Are the Signs That You’re Not Getting Enough?
Mild iron deficiency may go unnoticed, so it’s important to get your levels checked routinely. As the body becomes more deficient, the signs and symptoms intensify. These include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Pale skin
- Chest pain, accelerated heartbeat, or shortness of breath
- Headache, dizziness, or lightheadedness
- Cold hands and feet
- Inflammation or soreness of your tongue
- Brittle nails
If it gets severe enough, you may even start to crave non-food substances, such as ice, or dirt.
💪🏼 How Can We Ensure That We Are Getting Enough?
Dietary Requirements for Iron:
- Men and postmenopausal women – 8 mg/day
- Premenopausal women – 18 mg/day
- Pregnant women – 27 mg/day
- Lactating women 9 mg/day
A healthy diet is key to getting the iron you need. An abundance of iron-rich plant-based foods are widely available. You just need to know what they are and eat enough of them. There are also a few tricks you can incorporate to make sure you get the biggest bang for your buck when you do consume these foods.
The food myth that you need to eat plenty of red meat to get enough iron is not only not true, but also harmful to those who act on it. While red meat is a good source, the type of iron it contains is heme iron, which intrudes into your body whether you are deficient in it or not. Why is this a problem? Because too much iron produces free radicals which can promote cancer and speed up aging, as well as increase the risk of heart disease. And plenty of Americans are getting plenty of iron. Too much, in fact.
Plant-based sources of iron behave differently. Plants provide non-heme iron which is more absorbable when your body is low in this nutrient, and less absorbable when you have enough. So, there’s less risk of overconsumption.
🌾 Which Plant-Based Foods Are Highest in Iron?
My favorite iron-rich food is lentils. They’re my go-to for packing more protein into a dish, with the added benefit of being a great source of iron. One cup of cooked lentils provides 30 percent of your daily requirement. Plus, they’re quick cooking and versatile, which makes them easy to use.
Lentils are also pantry friendly. If stored in a cool dry place, they have a minimum shelf life of one year. I always have some in my pantry for weeknights when I’m in a rush to get dinner on the table. (Full disclosure: I don’t actually have a pantry. I live in a NYC apartment with no space for a pantry. But I do have a spice rack!)
- Dried or canned peas and beans (soybeans; white, lima, red kidney, and navy beans; chickpeas; and black-eyed peas)
- Tempeh (fermented soybeans)
- Whole grains
- Rye bread
- Whole wheat bread
- White bread (enriched)
- Pasta (enriched)
- Rice (enriched)
- Breakfast cereals (enriched)
- Cream of Wheat
- Green beans
- Dark leafy greens (dandelion, collard, kale, spinach)
- Brussels sprouts
- Oyster mushrooms
- White mushrooms
- Tomato paste
Nuts & Seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Flax seeds
- Pine nuts
- Macadamia nuts
- Hemp seeds
Read nutrition labels on packaged foods for iron content to help meet your daily requirement.
Note: Iron supplements are not typically recommended as insurance for meeting your daily requirements. This is because the body does not excrete iron quickly enough to prevent it from building up over time to toxic levels.
💡 Tips For Increasing Iron Absorption
Consume vitamin C with iron-rich foods
Vitamin C significantly boosts the absorption of non-heme iron, the type found in plant-based foods. Pair iron-rich foods with foods that are high in vitamin C. These include red and green bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, kiwi, strawberries, cantaloupe, oranges, grapefruit, and tomato juice.
Avoid eating calcium-rich foods with iron-rich foods
Limit the amount of calcium you consume with foods rich in iron. Calcium can block iron absorption.
- Fortified nondairy milk, cheese, and yogurt (not all are fortified so remember to check the nutrition label)
- Calcium-set tofu
- Some types of seaweed
- Fortified cereals and flours
Read nutrition labels on packaged foods for calcium content
Use a cast-iron skillet
Cooking in cast-iron releases iron into your food. This is especially true for foods with more moisture or acidity, and for those with a longer cooking time.
You shouldn't depend on cast-iron cookware for meeting your nutritional needs, but it will boost your intake.
👩🏽🍳 Made These Recipes?
Leave a review, and share your vegan high-iron recipe creations with me on Instagram. It makes my day to see you recreate my dishes.
I would love it if you would ⭐️ rate these recipes and leave a comment. Thank you in advance.