The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Iron Sources
It seems like just about every other nutrient gets a bigger share of the spotlight than humble iron. Advertisers are all about the protein and fat content, calcium for bones; heck even fiber gets more recognition than iron!
What Exactly Does Iron Do?
Iron – yep, just like the metal – is a central part of hemoglobin, the red protein in our blood responsible for moving oxygen through our bodies. Hemoglobin makes up about 66% of the iron in our whole body.
When you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t produce enough healthy red blood cells to carry that oxygen. This results in iron deficiency anemia, which causes fatigue and exhaustion in everything from your muscles to your brain function and immune system.
Iron is also responsible for the maintenance of healthy skin, hair, and nails.
How Much Iron Do I Need?
Like most nutrients, your recommended daily iron intake will depend on your age, gender, overall health, and level of activity. Women in childbearing years need 19-50mg of iron per day, while men in that age range are fine with just 8mg per day – a woman’s needs are higher due to the blood she loses each month during her period. After women reach menopause, their needs drop down to the same amount of iron as men.
The Iron Vegan
Because the first food source that pops into people’s heads when they hear the word “iron” is “red meat,” many people assume vegans are deficient in this nutrient. After all, how could someone who doesn’t eat steak possibly get enough iron when iron deficiency anemia is such a prevalent issue?
Surprisingly, studies on vegan nutrition have shown that iron deficiency anemia is no more common among vegans than among omnivores – in fact, commonly eaten vegetables, like broccoli and spinach, are among the most iron-rich foods available. In fact, you would have to eat 1,700 calories of sirloin steak to consume the same amount of iron in 100 calories of spinach.
Vegans also tend to reach their daily iron levels without issues due to the high levels of vitamin C in the vegan diet. Vitamin C drastically increases the absorption of iron, so when an iron-rich food like bok choy is eaten with a vitamin C-rich food like tofu, their powers combine to process that all-important iron even more efficiently.
What About Supplementation?
“Okay, so I can just take an iron pill and call it a day, right?”
The key to iron is that your body can only absorb so much at one time, so eating blackstrap molasses by the cupful isn’t going to guarantee that it’s used effectively.
The best way to ensure your body can use the iron you’re taking in is to incorporate smaller amounts of iron-rich foods throughout your day.
However, supplementation is an option if you need it.
Maybe you’re going to be traveling for a few weeks and will have limited access to your regular food sources, or you just want to include a supplement in your diet to make absolutely sure you’re getting your recommended daily amount.
As is always the case when you’re considering supplementing your diet, it’s best to talk with your doctor about how much iron you should be getting via supplements – not only can iron interact with many different drugs and supplements, but an iron overdose can be fatal.
I find it is best to start out attempting to reach your iron goals through whole foods, but if you’re suffering from symptoms like fatigue, talk to your primary care physician about supplementing with iron.
List of Iron Sources for Vegans
So now we know why our bodies need iron, how much we need, and how best to absorb it for happy, healthy cells.
Now comes the fun part – what to eat to keep our iron stores filled to the brim and our cells moving that oxygen!
8.8mg/1 cup cooked
Soybeans have a long history – it has been grown in Asia for centuries, and was first cultivated in North America in the 1800s when it was used as an alternative to coffee.
Now, it’s a popular health food, and with good reason – it contains all eight amino acids we need, making it a plant-based source of complete protein in addition to being a fantastic source of iron for vegans.
Just one cup of these beans satisfies an adult male’s iron needs for the entire day. That’s a hard working little legume!
While cooked soybeans are delicious when cooled and sprinkled into salads, you can also reap the benefits through soy milk, tofu, and soy nuts (which make a fabulous snack).
If you love the mellow sweetness of gingerbread, blackstrap molasses might be a great vegan iron source to add to your diet.
Thick and sticky, blackstrap molasses is the syrupy leftovers from the sugar extraction process, the result of a third boil of sugar cane juice. Because most of the sugar has already been removed, blackstrap molasses is a sweetener that isn’t too sweet.
Try mixing blackstrap molasses with oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit for iron-rich homemade granola bars – it makes a great “glue” for the bars!
Blackstrap molasses also makes a great addition to marinades, glazes, dressings, and sauces – mix the molasses with balsamic vinegar to drizzle over salad or as a marinade for tofu and tempeh. Or, if you’re in a hurry, you can simply use it to sweeten coffee and tea, or take a teaspoon of the stuff once or twice a day.
In addition to its health benefits when consumed, it also does wonders for skin and hair – dilute with water for a nourishing face wash or conditioner for your hair.
6.6mg/1 cup cooked
Is there anything the humble lentil can’t do?
We’ve covered these little lens-shaped legumes in our article on vegan protein sources, but a list of vegan iron sources wouldn’t be complete without them, either.
Lentils are my favorite beans, not only for their taste but because they cook quickly and don’t require a whole night of soaking (and therefore, planning or effort on my part).
Lentils come in three colors and shapes, all having different textures, tastes, and dishes they are best suited for.
This is your standard lentil – when you pick up a bag of dried lentils or find them in the bulk aisle, it’s more than like a brown lentil. These legumes are characterized by their khaki-brown color and mild flavor. Brown lentils cook in about 25 minutes and tend to still hold some of their shape and structure after they’re cooked, making them the best lentil for veggie burgers and vegan “meat” loaves.
Green lentils are slightly glossy and have a more assertive flavor than your standard brown. They take around 45 minutes to cook, but like brown lentils, they keep a firm texture after they’re cooked, making them perfect for salads and side dishes. Try mixing green lentils with chopped tomato, onion, cucumber, cooked rice or farro, salt, and pepper for a cold summer salad.
The sweetest of all the lentil types, red lentils cook in a middle ground of about half an hour. Since they tend to cook down to a creamy puree when cooked, these are the lentils you’ll want to reach for when making Indian curries and hearty soups.
4.5mg/1 cup cooked
Kale gets a lot of attention for its reputation as a superfood, but if I'm honest, I’ll always be #TeamCollardGreen.
Collards are nutritional powerhouses – in only a cup of cooked greens, you get a whopping 5g of protein, 8g of fiber, 250% of your daily vitamin A, 50% of your vitamin C, 26% of your daily calcium (move over, cow’s milk!), and 12% of your daily iron, all for 60 measly little calories.
And to top it off, collard greens tend to be significantly cheaper than other dark leafy greens, which is always a plus.
You can use collards exactly as you’d use any other dark green – chopped up in soups and stews, sautéed with a little olive oil and garlic, or blended into fruit smoothies (don’t worry, the fruit masks the “green” taste!). Alternatively, swap out the tortilla and use a big collard leaf to roll up your burrito or wrap.
I always have a big bunch of collards in my refrigerator because the value for your dollar and calorie just can’t be beaten.
3.2mg/1 large potato
It’s all the rage to hate on potatoes these days, but don’t be fooled by clever marketing ploys accusing spuds of being “empty calories” – white potatoes, especially the skins, are chock full of iron and potassium!
You can get so much more creative with potatoes than the traditional butter or sour cream (though fantastic plant-based versions of both condiments are available and delicious.
I also love using healthy coconut oil on my baked potatoes instead of vegan butter or margarines – I find it has the same delicate sweetness as butter, and if you get a jar of unrefined, virgin coconut oil, the coconut flavor will be less pronounced. A baked potato drizzled with a little coconut oil and sea salt is truly simple perfection.
But don’t feel like you have to keep potatoes on the side – turn them into the center of attention by serving jacket potatoes as an entrée. I like to stuff baked potatoes with hearty chili or barbecue lentils for an easy and warming cold-weather lunch or dinner.
It’s time to upgrade sesame seeds from garnishes and bagel toppings to a real star of the show – these little seeds are a great vegan source of iron, as well as other vitamins and minerals like copper and calcium.
The seeds in their natural form add a nutty flavor to stir fries and cooked greens, while the extremely flavorful oil is perfect for sautéing vegetables like broccoli and cabbage.
They may be the oldest condiment known to man – in fact, the phrase “Open Sesame!” comes from the nature of the pods the little seeds live in, which bursts open when the seeds reach maturity.
Sesame seeds are also the star ingredient in tahini, a rich, earthy paste made from the seeds that arere essential in traditional hummus and baba ghanoush recipes. You can also use tahini to make my personal favorite dessert, Middle Eastern halvah – a rich treat made from tahini and sugar formed into a block and cut like fudge.
You can find tahini in the health foods section of your supermarket, Middle Eastern grocery stores, or simply make your own using your food processor or Vitamix.
Dried apricots are basically Mother Nature’s gummy bears. Soft and moist, they are sweet morsels perfect for packing in trail mix, munching on at work or school, or sprinkling over oatmeal.
As if they weren’t already perfect, they’re a tasty way to get closer to your iron intake for the day.
Apricots are great in any of the methods I’ve mentioned above, but they shine when combined with Moroccan flavors like cinnamon, turmeric, and almonds. Stir chopped apricots, chopped almonds, fresh cilantro, fresh parsley, salt, and pepper into cooked brown rice for a tasty, unexpected rice salad full of textures, flavors, and iron.
While it might be nice to simply pop an iron pill and go about our day, we know that this isn’t an efficient way for our bodies to absorb this vital nutrient.
Lucky for us, the methods of keeping our iron supplies topped off happen to be delicious and don’t require much effort. The best way to ensure you’re getting enough iron is to incorporate small amounts of iron throughout the day – and that doesn’t have to take much forethought or planning.
You can simply make changes to meals you’re already consuming on a daily basis.
Mix some dried apricots into your trail mix!
Fold cooked collard greens into mashed potatoes!
Plop a tablespoon or two of blackstrap molasses into that oatmeal and start your day the iron-rich way!
Just because you’re eating plant-based doesn’t mean you can’t meet your nutritional needs, and iron is no exception. Mother Nature has done all the planning for us, now all you need to do is munch your way to healthy cells.