I have wanted to write about the best sources of plant based iron for a while now. There is a common misconception that you need to eat meat to reach adequate iron levels. In reality on average meat eaters suffer from equal rates of iron deficiency compared with vegans and vegetarians.
Iron deficiency is one of those things most people know about but don’t take as serious as they may want to and often don’t recognize it as a cause of their symptoms.
Iron deficiency is a sneaky cause of fatigue. Low iron stores doesn’t always mean anemia (low hemoglobin) but it does make us more susceptible.
Women, men, vegans, vegetarians and even in some cases non-vegetarians can need extra iron. Sometimes this comes in the form of supplements (which are great when tested levels are low). Prevention of low iron is extremely important to optimal health.
This article will outline how to do just that.
Iron can be depleted in many ways but most commonly from blood loss and disease. Mild reductions are seen in iron levels when under stress, participating in intense exercise routines and due to absorption issues (outlined below).
We get our iron from our food. We absorb it in our small intestine. There are two types and it is helpful to know the difference.
Heme Iron vs Non-Heme Iron
Most high iron containing meats contain about 40% heme iron, a form that is easy to absorb. The other 60% of iron from meat and all of the iron from vegetables and legumes is considered non-heme iron, a form that can be difficult to absorb.
Nature has made up for the differences in our ability to absorb iron by making vegetables (non-heme iron) much more abundant than iron from meat. You just have to know what to eat and what to combine your foods with to optimize iron absorption.
Vegans and vegetarians can have lower levels of iron if they aren’t eating a healthy iron rich diet or have chronic low iron absorption ability. In this situation the first step is to get tested (more info below) and then assess if you simply need high iron containing foods or if supplements are the way to go.
Role of Iron in the Body
Iron is an essential mineral to life.
Iron is used to distribute oxygen around the body. When you have low iron you have low oxygen usage and it can become very difficult for our organs and muscles to function properly.
It is used in growth, development, healing, normal cellular functioning, connective tissue repair and hormone synthesis.
High levels of iron can also be dangerous. When iron stores become too full inflammation occurs. This is most common in men and those with iron storage diseases.
Am I Iron Deficient?
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms getting testing for iron deficiency is indicated. Testing is easy and inexpensive and treatments are extremely effective.
- general fatigue
- pale skin
- shortness of breath
- strange cravings to eat items that aren’t food, such as dirt, ice, or clay
- a tingling or crawling feeling in the legs
- tongue swelling or soreness
- cold hands and feet
- fast or irregular heartbeat
- brittle nails
How do I get Tested for Iron Deficiency?
Getting tested for iron deficiency is easy. First you will do a complete blood count which will include hemoglobin (the metalloprotien or protein with iron attached to it), hematocrit (the amount of blood made up of red blood cells), red blood cells and then ferritin (the storage form of iron).
Iron is stored in our bodies is bound to an incredible protein called ferritin. Ferritin molecules are extremely large and each one can bind 500 iron molecules. Knowing your ferritin number means knowing how much iron you have stored.
You may also hear about TIBC or total iron binding capacity, serum iron and transferrin testing. These can be helpful tests when you need to see what your iron absorption is, if you suspect high iron levels or to make sure your liver is making enough transferrin (the transport molecule for iron).
If you are interested in optimizing your health getting your iron tested is a great place to start. Those who should especially know their hemoglobin and ferritin include:
- Females of reproductive age
- People who consume low fruit and vegetable diets
- People with low stomach acid
- People who have experienced major bleeding
- Cancer patients
- People with a history of bleeding in the digestive tract
How do I Increase Absorption of Iron?
If you want to improve your iron stores and prevent anemia. It is best to be conscious of ways to boost iron absorption.
Iron needs to be exposed to stomach acid before it can be absorbed and the best way to increase stomach acid is to eat meat. So yes, eating meat improves the absorption of iron from non-meat sources. This info isn’t helpful if you don’t eat meat.
What else can be done?
Ascorbic acid or vitamin C from citrus fruits has a similar effect. Consuming vitamin C at the same time as sources of non-heme iron improves absorption significantly.
The key here is to note that when taking iron supplements or when eating high iron vegetables having a citrus fruit or vitamin C supplement will greatly increase absorption.
If someone has low stomach acid taking HCL (hydrochloric acid) can also be beneficial. Consult with a medical professional before doing so to make sure you actually have low stomach acid before taking this supplement.
What Foods Decrease Iron Absorption?
There are a whole series of foods and components of foods that decrese absorption. The tricky thing is that most of these foods are either already in the high iron vegetables or they are commonly eaten together.
Do your best to avoid these when trying to increase your iron levels through diet.
The most common ones are eggs, tea, coffee, cocoa, fiber, phytic acid (from plants) and minerals.
When you eat plants you can’t really avoid phytic acid, fiber and minerals but you can take vitamin C to offset some of their ability to reduce absorption. You can also make sure not to take supplements containing minerals, fiber (like psyllium and flax) at the same time as consuming or taking extra iron.
What are the Best Plant Based Iron Sources?
We have finally made it to the most important section of this article and the point I really wanted to get across. How can you increase (or maintain) iron stores via a plant-based diet?
Well, it is possible. It just takes a bit of planning.
The key is to eat foods highest in iron as much as possible. Fit them in wherever you can. Enjoy them with most meals. Track your ferritin status and make sure you are improving your levels.
Plant-based foods high in iron:
Food – Amount – Iron (mg)
- Soybeans, cooked – 1 cup – 8.8
- Blackstrap molasses – 2 Tbsp – 7.2
- Lentils, cooked – 1 cup – 6.6
- Spinach, cooked – 1 cup – 6.4
- Tofu – 4 ounces – 6.4
- Bagel, enriched – 1 medium – 6.4
- Chickpeas, cooked – 1 cup – 4.7
- Tempeh – 1 cup – 4.5
- Lima beans, cooked – 1 cup – 4.5
- Black-eyed peas, cooked – 1 cup – 4.3
- Swiss chard, cooked – 1 cup – 4.0
- Kidney beans, cooked – 1 cup – 3.9
- Black beans, cooked 1 cup – 3.6
- Pinto beans, cooked – 1 cup – 3.6
- Turnip greens, cooked – 1 cup – 3.2
- Potato – 1 large – 3.2
- Prune juice – 8 ounces – 3.0
- Quinoa, cooked – 1 cup – 2.8
- Beet greens, cooked – 1 cup – 2.7
- Tahini – 2 Tbsp – 2.7
- Peas, cooked – 1 cup – 2.5
- Cashews – 1/4 cup – 2.1
- Bok choy, cooked – 1 cup – 1.8
- Bulgur, cooked – 1 cup – 1.7
- Raisins – 1/2 cup – 1.6
- Apricots, dried – 15 halves – 1.4
- Watermelon – 1/8 medium – 1.4
- Almonds – 1/4 cup – 1.3
- Kale, cooked – 1 cup – 1.2
- Sunflower seeds – 1/4 cup – 1.2
- Broccoli, cooked – 1 cup – 1.1
- Millet, cooked = 1 cup – 1.1
- Soy yogurt – 6 ounces – 1.1
- Tomato juice – 8 ounces – 1.0
- Sesame seeds – 2 Tbsp – 1.0
- Brussels sprouts, cooked – 1 cup – 0.9
Sources: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24, 2011 and Manufacturer´s information.
I have a few favourite iron go-to’s that I have included in my daily diet:
- Spinach and Swiss Chard – I use these in smoothies and also I cook them in my stir-fry’s
- Quinoa – Easy to make and can take on the flavor of any meal
- Lentils and beans – I love these roasted in the oven with veggies
- Tempeh – Love it and it can be prepared so many great ways
- Organic tofu and or edamame
- Black Strap Molasses – I tbsp here and there on morning oats, etc is great
- Seeds and nuts – one of the best possible snacks you can have
- Dried fruits like dates and apricots – Dates (in shakes, with my midmorning snack, in my “fudgey bites”, etc)
You will notice from this list that the highest sources of non-heme iron are from leafy green vegetables, beans and whole grains. Organic versions of these foods have been found to contain more iron than non-organic.
From this list it is important to note that studies have shown blackstrap molasses has a very high absorption rate (of non-heme iron) compared with the other foods on the list.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above it could be worth it to have your hemoglobin and ferritin tested. They are often low and can be easy to replete by following the guide above.
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