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Plant-Based Foods High in Iron: Get All the Iron You Need on a Vegan Diet | Soul in the RawThe third post in the essential plant-based nutrients you need to know about series is all about iron, and foods high in iron that you must remember to consume.

Iron deficiency is the most common deficiency in the world. In the USA, 3% of premenopausal white women have iron deficiency anemia, but the rates are higher in African and Mexican-Americans.

Both eating too much and too little iron can be dangerous to your health. In this post, you will learn about the healthiest foods high in iron, and which foods to avoid. You will also learn how to increase iron absorption from these healthy foods because iron from plant foods has a much lower absorption rate.

Download the Plant-Based Foods High in Iron Summary

Download a PDF summary of the foods high in iron recommendations for plant-based eaters. You will also find a list of vegan iron-rich foods. You can hang this summary on your fridge to remember this important nutrient!

Plant-Based Foods High in Iron: Get All the Iron You Need on a Vegan Diet | Soul in the Raw

The Two Types of Iron

Iron has a major role in the production of energy. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin in red blood cells, which carry oxygen in your blood. Iron is also used to make myoglobin, which stores oxygen in muscle cells, and is also part of many enzymes.

Iron has pro-oxidation properties that are used by the immune system to destroy bacteria. It also synthesizes DNA in your body.

There are two types of iron: heme and non-home. The first comes from blood and muscle in animals. While its absorption is high, it also generates cancer-causing free radicals, because it is a pro-inflammatory pro-oxidant. Too much heme iron can also increase the risk of cancer and heart disease.

The second type, or non-heme iron, has lower absorbability, yet several benefits that showcase its superior suitability for the human body. Despite a common misconception, studies find that vegetarians consume more iron than omnivores.

The human body cannot rid itself of excess heme iron. However, if we have too much or too little non-heme iron, your intestines either boost iron absorption or decrease it. Your body is 5 times more efficient at blocking excess absorption of non-heme than heme iron, once you have enough iron in your blood. This points to why plant foods are so much more suitable than eating animals for the human body!

This also may be why the Harvard Nurses’ Health and Health Processionals’ Follow-Up Study (the largest study in history on diet and health) found that meat consumption was associated with increased risk of death from cancer, heart disease, and premature death in general.

Foods High in Iron

The RDI (recommended daily intake) for iron is 8 mg for adult males, and 18 mg for menstruating women, which goes back to 8 mg after menstruation is over. Pregnant women need 27 mg while breastfeeding women need 10 mg. The upper limit for adults is 45 mg per day.

It is helpful to note that the iron listed on nutrition labels is in percent of the daily value, which is counted as 18 mg per day. So for example, 50% of the Daily Value would be 9 mg.

The best sources of iron include whole grains, legumes (particularly lentils), nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and dark leafy greens. Organic produce is higher in iron than conventionally-grow.

In particular, foods high in iron include blackstrap molasses, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, Swiss chard, edamame, pinto beans, tempeh, and dried figs. For a complete list, click here.

Iron Deficiency and Deficiency in Vegans

Iron deficiency symptoms include tiredness, a fast heart rate, palpitations, rapid breathing, and increased lactic acid production. Anemia includes pale skin, brittle nails, weakness, loss of appetite, hair loss, weak immunity, inflammation of the tongue, gastritis, and more.

There are many things that can cause anemia, including low B12, so it’s important to check and rule out all causes before concluding that it’s due to iron deficiency.

Any disease that causes bleeding or a disease of the digestive tract could exacerbate iron deficiency. Celiac disease can also cause iron deficiency anemia, as well as proton pump inhibitors, which are prescribed to treat intestinal diseases.

Rates of iron deficiency in vegetarians is similar to that of omnivores.

In addition to iron deficiency being a possible cause for anemia, it is also harmful for another reason. It’s important for any vegan with iron deficiency to correct it because, during iron deficiency, the body has a tendency to absorb too much manganese. Luckily, there is a great strategy to increase iron absorption without increasing manganese absorption, which will be discussed in the next section.

Lastly, if you are exercising a lot, it’s extra important that you pay attention to your iron levels. Iron deficiency can impair muscle function. Iron requirements may be 30-70% higher for people who perform regular and intense endurance workouts, especially running. However, they do not have a higher RDA because the RDA is already a bit high to provide above average requirement.

Increasing Absorption of Foods High In Iron

Plant-Based Foods High in Iron: Get All the Iron You Need on a Vegan Diet | Soul in the Raw

The Food and Nutrition Board (which sets RDI’s), suggests that iron in vegetarian diets is absorbed at 10%, 18% in omnivorous diets, and 5% in the vegan diet.

Part of the explanation for this, just like with zinc, is phytates. Phytates and polyphenols are found in many plant foods. These can inhibit the absorption of iron from plant foods by about 10-15%.

You can overcome the impact of phytates on absorption by adding vitamin C. To do this, you should add 50 mg of vitamin C to counteract the phytates, and 150 mg to increase iron absorption to almost 30%.

Polyphenols are found in coffee, cacao, black and green tea. 100 mg of vitamin C can help increase iron absorption from 2% to 8% in the presence of large amounts of polyphenols. By eating vitamin-C rich foods with iron-rich foods, you are increasing iron absorption but not manganese absorption – which is not a good thing to get too much of.

Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus, strawberries, cauliflower, dark leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli, and many tropical fruits.

Adding vitamin C is more effective in increasing iron in the body than iron supplements.

Also similar to zinc, you can increase the absorption of iron by up to 50% by consuming iron-rich foods with allium family vegetables, such as garlic, onions, chives, etc.

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Risk of Animal Foods High in Iron

Plant-Based Foods High in Iron: Get All the Iron You Need on a Vegan Diet | Soul in the Raw

As mentioned above, heme iron is the form of iron found in animals. It has been found to be associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Avoiding heme iron, found in animal blood and muscle, may be one of the key explanations for why a plant-based diet protects against metabolic syndrome and lowers heart disease risk. This is because iron can act as a pro-oxidant, contributing to the development of atherosclerosis by oxidizing cholesterol with free radicals. The risk has been determined as a 27% increase in heart disease for every mg of heme iron consumed daily.

Similarly, studies have found that heme iron intake (but not non-heme) is associated with increased risk of stroke and diabetes: 16% increase in risk for every daily mg. And a 12% increased risk for every mg of daily heme iron for cancer (this was found for lung cancer, but expected to repeat itself in many different types of cancer).

Higher intake of heme iron is also associated with increased risk of gestational diabetes, while consumption of non-heme is not.

It is ironic that many industries brag about the high animal protein and heme iron content of meat, when they may do much more harm than good. While animal products are high in protein and iron, they also contain saturated fat, pollutants, hormones, and many more properties that render them completely unsuitable for human consumption.

Risks of Iron Supplementation

About 1 in 30 menstruating women in the USA may lose more iron than they take in, leading to anemia. Women who eat plant-based have not been found to have a higher iron deficiency risk, but all women of childbearing age should make sure they take in enough iron through plant sources.

If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency, work with your healthcare professional by trying to first fix it with foods high in iron, in combination with increased absorption strategies. This is because iron supplements have been shown to increase oxidative stress and DNA damage, leading to diseases like glaucoma.

If you don’t absorb enough iron, you can be anemic. But if you get too much iron, you can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease, infection, neurodegenerative disorders, and inflammatory conditions. Even Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and diabetes have been associated with consuming too much iron.

Even pregnant women who are not iron deficient should not be supplementing with iron. Iron supplements are harmful to pregnant women because they increase the risk of low birth weight, preterm birth, and even maternal high blood pressure.


Download the Plant-Based Foods High in Iron Summary

Download a PDF summary of the foods high in iron recommendations for plant-based eaters. You will also find a list of vegan iron-rich foods. You can hang this summary on your fridge to remember this important nutrient!

Plant-Based Foods High in Iron: Get All the Iron You Need on a Vegan Diet | Soul in the Raw

What is your favorite new thing that you learned about iron in this blog post?

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Marina Yanay-Triner is a wellness coach and recipe developer through Soul in the Raw. Marina creates easy and delicious vegan recipes and writes about the health benefits of a plant-based diet, focusing on evidence-based nutrition information. She loves to help clients go and stick to plant based eating through her powerful coaching program, combining nutrition and cooking education along with transformational mindset work. Marina adopted a whole food, plant based lifestyle over 7 years ago, inspired by her mother's incredible healing story of reversing a crippling bladder disease. She has reversed PMS symptoms and encourage emotional healing from trauma as a result of this transition. Marina is incredibly passionate about the vegan diet for human health, animal welfare, and the well-being of our planet, all of which she envisions as co-dependent.