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Top 10 High Iron Foods for Vegetarians and Vegans

Written by Daisy Whitbread, MScN
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Top 10 High Iron Foods for Vegetarians and Vegans

Iron is an essential nutrient primarily needed for transport of oxygen throughout the body. A deficiency of iron leads to weakness and anemia, commonly called iron-deficiency anemia. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may take time to develop and include anxiety, irritability, hair loss, and depression. Iron deficiency anemia is difficult to diagnose and requires a blood test.

Iron is more bio-available in heme (meat) sources that from non-heme (plant sources), as such, vegans and vegetarians are often concerned about their iron status and intake. The Institute of Health practically doubles the recommended daily allowances of iron for vegetarians from 11mg to 20mg of iron per day for adults. The daily value (%DV) seen on most food labels also takes vegetarians into account and is set at 18mg per day. This amount of iron is a good goal for almost all individuals, except pregnant women, who should consume 27mg per day.

The good news is that the less iron you have the more your body will absorb, boosting the bioavailability of iron from all sources. Vitamin C found in plant foods also boosts iron absorption. The bad news is that nutrients like polyphenols in plant foods can block iron absorption. For information, see the section on iron absorption.

Vegetarian and vegan sources of iron include beans, lentils, tofu, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, whole grains, mushrooms, seeds, nuts, pumpkin, squash, and salad greens. Eating a wide variety of these foods should ensure you get the 18mg daily value for iron. Below are the top 10 vegetarian and vegan iron food sources ranked by common serving size, for more, see the extended list of less common iron foods, and the article on fruits and vegetables high in iron.

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High Iron Foods for Vegetarians and Vegans

1Dried Fruit (Apricots)
Dried Apricots
Other fruit high in iron (%DV per cup): Peaches (36%), Prunes (26%), Figs (17%), Raisins (17%), and Apples (7%). Note: Dried fruit is high in sugar and calories.
2Large White Beans
White Beans
Other Beans High in Iron (%DV per cup cooked): Soybeans (49%), Lentils (37%), Kidney beans (29%), Garbanzo beans (Chickpeas) (26%), and Lima beans (25%), Navy (24%), Black Beans (Frijoles Negros) (20%), Pinto (20%), and Black-eyed Peas (20%).
3Spinach
A Bowl of Spinach
Other Greens High in Iron (%DV per cup): Cooked Swiss Chard (22%), Cooked Turnip Greens (16%), Raw Kale (6%), and Raw Beet Greens (5%).
4Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate squares
1 cup of cocoa powder provides 66% DV. A 1.5oz (44g) candy chocolate bar provides 6% DV.
5Quinoa
A bowl of quinoa
Other Grains High in Iron (%DV per cup cooked): Oatmeal (12%), Barley (12%), Rice (11%), Bulgur (10%), Buckwheat (7%), and Millet (6%). Bran from whole grains can harm absorption of iron supplements, while whole grains are a good source of iron, they should not be consumed with iron supplements.
6White Button Mushrooms
Mushrooms
Other Mushrooms High in Iron (%DV per cup sliced): Morels (45% DV), Oyster (6% DV), Shiitake (3% DV).
7Squash and Pumpkin Seeds
Squash and Pumpkin Seeds
Other Nuts and Seeds High in Iron (%DV per ounce (28g)): Sesame (23%), Sunflower (11%), and Flax (9%), Cashews (9%), Pine nuts (9%), Hazelnuts (7%), Peanuts (7%), Almonds (7%), Pistachios (7%), and Macadamia (6%).
8Acorn Squash
An acorn squash
Pumpkin provides 7% DV per cup, most other winter squash provide 6% DV per cup.
9Leeks
Stalks of leeks
Scallions (Spring Onions) are also high in Iron with (2% DV) per onion.
10Cashews (Dry Roasted)
Cashews
Other Nuts High in Iron (%DV per ounce (28g)): Pine nuts(9%), Hazelnuts (7%), Peanuts (7%), Almonds (7%), Pistachios (7%), and Macadamia (6%).

See All 200 Vegetarian Foods High in Iron

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Vegetarian and vegan sources of iron include beans, lentils, tofu, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, whole grains, mushrooms, seeds, nuts, pumpkin, squash, and salad greens.

More Iron Rich Foods for Vegetarians

#1 Fortified Cereals109% DV (20mg) in 3/4 cup
#2 Artichokes28% DV (5mg) in 1 cup
#3 Hearts of Palm25% DV (5mg) in 1 cup
#4 Soy Protein Isolate23% DV (4mg) in 1oz
#5 Dried Thyme19% DV (3mg) in 1 tblsp
#6 Jute (Molokhiya)15% DV (3mg) in 1 cup
#7 Green Peas14% DV (2mg) in 1 cup
#8 Pumpkin Leaves13% DV (2mg) in 1 cup
#9 Tempeh12% DV (2mg) in 100 grams
#10 Spirulina (Dried Seaweed)11% DV (2mg) in 1 tblsp
#11 Dried Gogi Berries11% DV (2mg) in 5 tbsp
#12 Tofu10% DV (2mg) in 1/5 Block
#13 Whole Wheat Bread6% DV (1mg) in 1 slice
#14 Molasses5% DV (1mg) in 1 tbsp
#15 Sorghum Syrup4% DV (1mg) in 1 tbsp

What Affects Iron Absorption?

  • The most important factor is your existing iron level. A low iron level will increase absorption, while a high iron level will decrease absorption. In general, you absorb 10-15% of the iron from foods. (2)
  • Meat proteins will increase the absorption of non-heme iron. (2)
  • Vitamin C will increase the absorption of nonheme iron by as much as 85%. (2,3)
  • Tannins, oxalates, polyphenols, and phytates found in tea and coffee can reduce the absorption of non-heme iron by up to 65%. Black tea reduces absorption more than green tea and coffee. (2,3,4)
  • The following teas and beverages also inhibit iron absorption: Peppermint tea, cocoa, vervain, lime flower, chamomile, and most other herbal teas with polyphenols. (4)
  • Calcium, polyphenols, and phytates found in legumes, whole grains, and chocolate can reduce absorption of nonheme iron. (2) Further milk, and antacids can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (5)
  • Some protein from soy products may inhibit nonheme iron absorption. (2)
  • High fiber foods, such as whole grains, raw vegetables, and bran can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (5)
  • Foods or drinks with caffeine can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (4, 5)

How much iron do I need?

The daily value (%DV) for iron is set at 18mg per day. Most adults only need 8-18mg, however, vegetarians and vegans should aim to consume 15-32mg per day. (2)

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Data Sources and References

  1. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 28.
  2. Office of Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet: Iron
  3. Hallberg L, Rossander L. Effect of different drinks on the absorption of non-heme iron from composite meals. Hum Nutr Appl Nutr. 1982 Apr;36(2):116-23.
  4. Richard F. Hurrell, Manju Reddy, and James D. Cook. Inhibition of non-heme iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages. British Journal of Nutrition (1999), 81, 289-295
  5. National Library of Medicine Fact Sheet on Taking Iron Supplements.
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